I had not heard of Connolly before borrowing this book from li'l sis, but apparently he has written some crime fic, and I'll be sure to check it out since the library has it in. (This book contains criminal acts, but since the crimes are mostly committed by a fairy tale character I think we won't call it crime fic even in the loosest sense of the word.)
Reading this after reading the similarly themed shambles that was The War of the Flowers was very interesting. This is a much more researched and well-planned book in many ways, utilising the dark horror of original versions of fairytales, giving them a bit of a spin, and weaving it all together into a story about growing up and about loss. And sorrow of course, sorrow comes with loss.
Set at the beginning of WW2, we meet David, a boy of about 12, just as his mother is dying. The disease works at her slowly and painfully, and David escapes into books and OCD, thinking that his counting habits and rituals will somehow protect her. His father meets another woman so soon that David subconsciously realises that the affair went on while his mother was alive, leaving him feeling that there is really no-one he can trust, who is on his side. When Rose, the new woman, becomes pregnant, they all move to her family's house outside London, since it's safer. It's a big house, and David gets the room in the attic that used to belong to a boy called Jonathan, who also loved to read and who tragically disappeared together with his foster sister, many years ago. The birth of a demanding baby brother creates even more tensions in the new family. David feels unwanted, and starts to hear the books talking to each other. He also sees a strange man sometimes, a crooked man whom he perceives as somehow threatening. One night David finds the crossing into another world and goes through. The fairytale land is not what he expected. Talking wolves, trying to be human, are ravaging the land, and there are other monsters. David's journey on the way to see the King becomes a quest. He grows up. On the way he meets many characters from stories and tales, but with a twist. Some are horrifying, and in general there is a lot of blood and gore in this book. It's not gratuitious though - the original fairy tales were much darker than the versions we read today, and this is what Connolly taps into. David finally reaches the King, and completes his quest and gets home. Getting home does not mean a happy ending though. The last chapter tells us how David's adult life turns out, and how all his loved ones do die in the end. It's terribly sad and moving, yet ends with a sweet hopeful scene.
The second half of the book is an interview with Connolly about the book, and an explanation to the fairy tales behind some of the themes in the book, plus the original stories. It's very interesting on the whole. On the annoying level (there's always something) - sometimes the book feels "off", like it's anachronistic or something, but the only think I spotted for sure was David making a reference to a tingling in his hand that feels like poison ivy. Which surely is nothing an English boy has experienced? Anyway, recommended to anyone who enjoys fairy tales. I was reminded of when my friend E's husband, a teacher, once complained about their school librarian's stupidity in not understanding what books to order when the teachers were working with the students on fairy tales. Instead of getting original versions of Grimm's collections or similar, she got Astrid Lindgren. Lame! This book though would have made an good addition to the theme.