At Aunt B.’s urging I decided I’d go ahead and read this, and I’m glad I did. It’s a very good example of how a good writer with some skill can…well…let me tell you.
I started the book and was immediately impressed with Ransom Riggs’ use of language. He uses words the way a true story-teller ought to, mindful of not only their meaning but the cadence and beauty of their arrangement. I was really enjoying it and then it occurred to me that I wasn’t reading the blog of a man in his thirties, but first-person narrative of a sixteen year old boy.
How do we know he’s 16? Because Riggs tells us–in the guise of Jacob, his main character–that he is. There is absolutely nothing in the character’s use of language or dialog or POV that lets the reader know that Jacob is 16 other than Jacob talking about his recent sixteenth birthday party.
When the story requires a grandfather with an intriguing past, Riggs has the character be a “Holocaust Survivor”–a term he uses repeatedly for one of the children presumably of the Kindertransport, sent to England to avoid the Nazi persecution. It’s an odd choice of words because those children did lose their families in most cases, but when one reads “Holocaust Survivor” one pictures a person who was in the camps. But that again is a trick that Riggs uses. Instead of giving us a three-dimensional character with a real and well-described history we’ve got a stock Old Jewish Man Who Survived The Holocaust. It’s up to use to use those shades of crayon to colour in a mental picture of Grandfather Abe.
Then we’re in Wales. We know it’s Wales because “16 year old” Jacob contrived to go there to look into his grandpa’s past. No matter that every one of the “Welsh” characters speaks in a North American vernacular not unlike “Jacob”.
Riggs collects photographs in real life and the book’s conceit is that it was written around a handful of bizarre pictures from the author’s collection. I keep reading reviews that praise this as a unique approach. One Goodreads reviewer went on and on about how it gives her hope that creativity and new ideas aren’t dead. Clearly not one of these people have ever been to a Writers’ Workshop or a Writers’ Retreat. Because this is the exact kind of thing that gets done. “Write a short story that explains this picture,” the facilitator will say as he flashes a PowerPoint slide showing two boys painting a fence blue while a dog in a sailor costume looks on.
And as I thought about it last night I realised that’s exactly what this book feels like. A workshop exercise-cum-first draft done when the author has his quirky muse in front of him but before he can get to the web and library to research.