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Ye Olde Forest Camp

By Graham Joyce,
whose most recent book is "The Limits of Enchantment"
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS

By John Connolly

Atria. 339 pp. $23

There is a lot of genre-splicing going on these days, and that surely is a good thing. John Connolly is a thriller writer who has earned attention and success for his tough-minded Charlie Parker novels. I enjoyed some of his previous outings and was looking forward to this book, hoping to find the techniques and pace of the thriller imported into the fantastic, perhaps dispensing with tired formulas, raising the levels of suspense and forging an exciting hybrid form.

I'm not sure if "The Book of Lost Things" represents a career switch or a distracting outing for the author. Publishers don't like their genre writers to play this game, citing long lists of those who tried, cried and died. The common problem with switching mounts while a career is cantering along nicely is that, having made the jump, one often finds oneself on an old horse, a slow horse or one that won't even get out of the stable.

"The Book of Lost Things " is initially set in wartime Britain. A 12-year-old boy named David loses his mother. He becomes reclusive and bookish, unable to relate to his stepmother and jealous of a new sibling. And then he discovers a tree portal to an enchanted forest.

This is just the first in a long sequence of very old chestnuts. One reads on, waiting for the author to mint these cliches afresh, to carry old narrative patterns into new places. Alas.

A writer who invokes the power of the greenwoods in the realm of the fantastic should at least know that the stakes are high because the list of antecedents is long and accomplished. In fact, it would take another book to chart the treatment of the theme of "into the woods," which so often denotes the process of transformation or a passage into a new world. Innocence of these traditions can sometimes offer fresh writing; ignorance of what is hackneyed can be fatal.

It's difficult enough to take yet another "Return of the King," but the narrative here retreads one tired trope after another. David's quest is a tedious series of attacks (from wolves/trolls/hunters/harpies/ footpads/unspeakable writhing worms), and his allies are a procession of promptly killed bit partners (woodsmen/dwarves/knights), none of whom ever contributes to the structure of the story. They exist only as potential fang fodder.

Connolly struggles with issues that newcomers to the fantasy genre have to nail early. For example, having triggered a portal into an Other World, there is always the question of how the Other Worldly speak. Unless your point is somewhat satirical, you don't want characters speaking vernacular Bronx or London "mockney." Then again, unless you have Tolkien's philological plans and knowledge, there often follows the desperate recourse to the antiquated and campy tones of mid-period English: "Men and women fear to travel, for this world has grown passing strange."

The novel also is pitched unevenly. Crossover or young adult novels are very sexy at the moment, but the tone must be consistent for them to work. Some of this 12-year-old's perceptions are fun enough: David "hears" books making noises, and a book on industry proves so boring that it has a "habit of snoring very loudly and then coughing thunderously." How Harry Potterish and jolly. But then in another place, David hears nasty homophobic innuendo about one of his traveling companions. He also sees a strange creature with lips "very dark, like old, sour wine." I'm not sure that in wartime Britain -- or any other time -- a 12-year-old boy would make that kind of observation, fine though it might be in another context.

I did like the play on books as a healing factor, a recurring motif in David's reclusive life. The quest object itself is the eponymous "Book of Lost Things." But I yearned for some greater integration between the fantastic and the realist worlds that are set up. The latter, nicely created in the first 60 pages, is simply allowed to wither on the vine.

Writers should switch genres whenever and wherever they want, of course. The imagination needs new challenges. But Connolly is better than this, and he owes it to himself to know that Angela Carter or the more contemporary Robert Holdstock or Charles de Lint have been here before doing far more original work. Perhaps followers of Connolly will find this work highly original, but you would have to know nothing of the fantastic to think so.

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