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CARPE LIBRUM: Souls of stories come alive on the page

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
By Ransom Riggs
Quirk Books, 2011

Griffin and Sabine books
By Nick Bantock
Beginning, 1991

There are few debut novels that take on the almost mythical success of Ransom Riggs’ “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” It debuted at number five on the New York Times Best Seller list and now has been adapted to a film by Tim Burton. 

miss-peregrines-home-peculiar_book-coverI remember being intrigued by the buzz around the book when it first appeared: The use of “peculiar” photographs from the author’s collection was intriguing. In interviews Riggs talked about spending hours in flea markets and antique malls, poring over—almost unbelievable and at times downright impossible—photographs of people that had to be from freak shows. Or doctored. Or … who knows? 

Inspired by his curiosity, Riggs decided to make up and write down stories for these photographed people he would never meet. The result is one of the most fascinating books I have encountered since the “Griffin and Sabine” series by Nick Bantock.

In 1991 Nick Bantock rethought the epistolary novel as experiential. Coming from a visual-art background he created the art for the postcards that graced one side of the page and the handwritten text on the other side of the card for the correspondence between the two characters, Griffin and Sabine. Likewise, for their letters, one opened the envelopes on the pages and unfolded the sheets of paper tucked inside. The art was stunning and evocative, the experience dimension-shattering and the story remains captivating: a man and a woman engaged in a telepathic relationship that takes to paper. Does it not only transcend time and space, but maybe death? Are Griffin and Sabine two different people, or one? Are they real at all? Or are they much more? It is griffinfascinating to read and reread. The reader (and characters) are taken on an otherworldly journey that is haunting and deeply personal.

“Miss Peregrine’s” opens with a little boy learning the stories of his grandfather’s childhood: moving to a children’s home in Wales at the age of 10 from Czechoslovakia. The children’s home was filled with magical children: one who could levitate and another with bees inside him—Grandpa even had pictures of them. As the boy grows older, his parents explain away Grandpa’s stories as the way a child interpreted the Holocaust: Monsters came and destroyed his family and his world, but he was saved by moving to this children’s home (presumably through one of the kindertransports). So the people who saved his life took on special powers in his mind. When his grandpa dies, the boy, Jacob, is traumatized and finds himself in an interminable tunnel of psychobabble and therapy, as his loving parents try desperately to keep him safe and happy.

The crux of the novel is this tenuous balance the Riggs walk so beautifully. He takes the human need for the mythic to explain our world and the painful insistence upon the tangible that is the hallmark of our adult norms. Because part of what he does so carefully is built toward a reveal that far outpace an acceptable norm and takes the reader hook, line and sinker on this journey. It is an amazing journey of discovery for Jacob and for the audience. It asks us to confront some fairly serious questions about the human experience, but in a way that accept the unexplainable. Riggs’ world he has created for his photographs is wonderful, compelling, frightening and beautiful all at once—and it turns on the power of not letting your friends down and believing you are capable of more than you give yourself credit for.

On the one hand, it has a fairly standard plot of a select few against a powerful and overwhelming enemy who seek to wipe them out because they are different. But Riggs has made each of his characters so drastically different from their pursuers—and from each other that their very differences are their ultimate salvation—because of what they can accomplish together.

But I kept putting off reading “Miss Peregrine’s” (hard to believe that I have a long “to-be-read” list). When it was announced Tim Burton was making a film of it, the coupling seemed incredibly logical. This is an image-inspired and image-driven narrative. Burton is a filmmaker fascinated with art department. If he can actually focus on the plot and bring it to life instead of leaping from one special effect to the next, It could be wonderful.Visual stimulus aside, the soul of this story is beautiful and moving. To ignore it would be a huge disservice not only to Riggs and the book, but also to the souls in the pictures who have been rescued from rubbish heaps and anonymity to be given immortality.


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