Twelve-year-old David’s life is being turned upside down. His mother dies. His father remarries. He finds himself burdened by a new half-brother. Finally, he is dragged away from his childhood home to the house of his stepmother Rose, safely away from the bombs that are falling on London. And those are only the normal things. There are the blackouts from which he wakes with memories of a fairytale world, and which leave him with the ability to hear books talking amongst themselves. There are the waking visions of the same land, and dreams of a crooked man who hails him as a king. And the curious fact that his room, and his room alone, is forever invaded by ivy and wildlife. The visions seem connected to a hole in the wall of a sunken garden, and when he hears his dead mother’s voice calling to him, he runs out into the night and climbs through it.
Once in the world of his dreams, David is unable to return, and must trust himself to the Woodsman who soon appears. The Woodsman takes him to a cottage as armoured as a fortress, for there are worse than wolves in the forest: the Loups, a wolf-human hybrid, are hunting; not just for food, but for power. He tells David of an ageing king who keeps an old book rumoured to contain an answer for everything - including, perhaps, the way home. David sets out for the castle through a land seemingly composed of fragments of all the old tales so beloved of his mother; a land of wolves, trolls, dwarves, and enchantment. Yet some things don’t fit - like the Loups, who stalk him in hope of a meal. The Crooked Man stalks him also, with a different end in mind, and holds out all kinds of promises if David will only do him the tiniest little favour. At the end of his journey he discovers not only the contents of the Book of Lost Things, but the fate of the original inhabitant of his room – Rose’s uncle, who went for a walk with his foster-sister and was never seen again....
The start was slow, but still effective; it allowed the tension to be ratcheted up one nerve-wracking step at a time, and set the stage for David’s growing-up during the course of the book - and the strange world he steps into. That world was well-created; a bit of this, a bit of that, and it was clear how David’s own reading and imagination had altered it. He encountered one of Byron’s characters after reading one of his poems, and his attempt at a history of communism made a surprise change: the seven dwarves are Party members, and they’re saddled with a Snow White that you never dreamed of. This episode was my favourite of the book; delightfully skewed and very funny. It’s also a nice respite from the darkness that exists in so much else of the world, including a woman who’d give Dr. Frankenstein a run for his money, and a creature from the deepest corner of David’s own mind.
Since this is a book all about growing up, there is a lot of character growth, but it’s all David; this really is his book and everyone else is secondary. A lot don’t even make it to the end; and the means of disposal of some is managed quite neatly, thanks to the peculiar nature of the other world. That world raises a lingering question: just how much of it was real? It was composed of pieces of fiction, it was influenced by the people who came there, and yet ... there were things to suggest that it was all real. Intriguing - and all leading up to an end that almost made me feel like reaching for the Kleenex (not that that’s saying a whole lot). My main problem with the book was that the fairytale atmosphere made it hard to believe that the danger was real; after all, fairytales have happy endings all round. Usually. And it was never explained just why the ivy and assorted wildlife found David’s room so irresistible.