(This review first appeared in April 2008)

Rating: ★★★★★ 

The Book of Lost Things, by John Connelly.  Washington Square Press (2007), 480 pages.

This book is actually alive. It is a book in which books talk (and shout, and throw themselves about), and the stories within it are alive and have emotions, so it’s fitting that the book itself would be alive, though strangely I didn’t know anything about its content when I first sensed its sentience.

I had picked it up impulsively and read the first page after its initial reader set it down, and I immediately knew that this was a very special book deserving of complete attention, which I couldn’t provide at the time, so when its first reader was finished, the book was loaned to another person who had also become captivated after just the first page. Many weeks later, when my scheduled was cleared (though I had never once stopped thinking about it), I went to retrieve the book. As I drove to the neighborhood where the book was living, I felt very much as though I were picking up a small, living creature such as a puppy or kitten.

I realize that this is a very strange and possibly not very helpful review, but I felt I should try to explain the unique emotions that this book evoked in me.

When a book is actually alive, one hardly needs to say more. But I should make clear, first, that this is a fairy tale. Anybody who dislikes fairy tales will be extremely unhappy about the appearance of many classic tales within the book’s overarching story. Actually, I became rather mad at the book during a tedious and predictable chapter concerning Snow White. At that point I even seriously questioned the book’s worth. But the chapter immediately following completely made up for the prior lapse: “His legs were tied at the ankles and he was lifted into the air and slung over the back of the great horse, his body lying upon that of the deer, his left side resting painfully against the saddle. But David did not think about the pain, not even when they began to trot and the ache in his side became a regular, rhythmic pounding, like the blade of a dagger being forced between his ribs. No, all that David could think about was the head of the deer girl, for her face rubbed against his as they rode, her warm blood smeared his cheek….”

Every person I know who has read the first page has been compelled to devour the rest of the book as soon as possible, and for that reason it seems obvious that the excerpt I select for this review should be that page:

Once upon a time—for that is how all stories should begin—there was a boy who lost his mother.

He had, in truth, been losing her for a very long time. The disease that was killing her was a creeping, cowardly thing, a sickness that ate away at her from the inside, slowly consuming the light within so that her eyes grew a little less bright with each passing day, and her skin a little more pale.

And as she was stolen away from him, piece by piece, the boy became more and more afraid of finally losing her entirely. He wanted her to stay. He had no brothers and sisters, and while he loved his father it would be true to say that he loved his mother more. He could not bear to think of a life without her.

The boy, whose name was David, did everything that he could to keep his mother alive. He prayed. He tried to be good, so that she would not be punished for his mistakes. He padded around the house as quietly as he was able, and kept his voice down when he was playing war games with his toy soldiers. He created a routine, and he tried to keep to that routine as closely as possible, because he believed in part that his mother’s fate was linked to the actions he performed. He would always get out of bed by putting his left foot on the floor first, then his right. He always counted up to twenty when he was brushing his teeth, and he always stopped when the count was completed.