Where do fairy tales come from? and can we fall into them by mistake?
The actual fantasy portion of John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is incorporated into the middle. The framing story follows the basic trope for many fairy tales: David’s mother dies while he is still in childhood, his father remarries but the stepmother and David have spats and disagreements, especially after the stepmother gives birth to a child. David withdraws to his bedroom and his dreams…until a German plane crashes in his garden, opening a door between the land from which fairy tales and heroic quests come, filtering, changed, into ‘reality’ and that self same reality. David plunges impetuously through that new door into a world that appears strange at first but which reflects his own reality, and in which he can find answers to the problems he faces in reality…he literally loses himself in the books with which he has figuratively tried to avoid life outside his room.
David is led on a quest through this land of fairy tales; in the beginning, he is led by the Woodsman onward, but completes his quest with Childe Rolande, and along the way meets changed fairy tales from those he knows, told largely from the perspective of the peripheral characters, and leaving open the question of to whom “they all lived happily ever after” applies: the seven dwarves are trying to get rid of Snow White as she’s a boorish slattern, but she coughs at inopportune moments, or a prince knocks the apple loose when kissing her clumsily, and Goldilocks is eaten when she runs into the woods–indeed “running away” is a euphemism for just this. He seeks the king, who has a book of lost things, before the Crooked Man can catch him and entice him to reveal his younger half-brother’s secret name; this will allow the Crooked Man to steal away the very child which in reality David has found intrusive, a constant reminder of what he once had with his real mother, and no longer has.
I’m not going to give the ending, either in the fantasy world or in reality, away, but I did find it a satisfying one. I do like the “lady or the tiger” endings, such as that in Jennifer McMahon’s Don’t Breathe a Word. I know many readers want the story to conclude when the book itself ends, with no twists or ambiguities. This book has a conclusion which brought the story to a “full stop” conclusive and (mostly) unequivocal ending.
On the surface, I’d say this was a fantasy novel based on fairy tales, such as Gregory Maguire’s retellings of various fairy tales and children’s fantasy novels; certainly Connolly’s novel covers a range of works from folklore to epic quest poems. The appendix listing the fairy tales he used was amusing, but out of place; I’ve never seen any other author include such a thing unless they were specifically intending the book in question to be used for a book discussion group. Older kids might appreciate this, if they like alternate tellings of fairy tales, but there is a level which adults are more likely to understand, of loss.