Last night I finished a book, and I don’t quite know how I feel about it. It started out rather generic and pedestrian, evolved into something highly creative and exciting, and ended in a rather unsettling manner, leaving me feeling a bit ill-at-ease. Not scared, just not wanting to be alone. To be fair, my head was in a really weird place after watching Sophie’s Choice (part of our AFI Top 100 Films movie watching project) and the Psych musical back-to-back earlier in the evening. But I think I still would have felt weird after finishing this book, regardless of what I’d watched.
Tom McNeal’s far far away (lack of capitalization intentional) tells the story of Jeremy Johnson Johnson, a kind and smart but solitary boy who keeps his mother’s fairy tale books long after she abandoned him, cares for his father who never recovered from his wife’s desertion, and talks to a friendly ghost, the ghost of none other than Jacob Grimm. Jacob Grimm is stuck on earth, in the Zwischenraum where the spirits who have something yet undone or some “unknown yet unmet desire” roam until that thing is done or desire is met. Jacob, who has wandered for many years, finally finds what he feels is his purpose: protecting Jeremy Johnson Johnson from The Finder of Occasions, someone who walks and waits in the village until the time arrives to enact his malignant plans. The story traces Jeremy; his budding romance with Ginger, an exotic and gregarious redhead whose mischievous, trouble-making ways hide a genuine and kind heart; his friendship with Jacob; and his horrific, almost tragic encounter with the Finder of Occasions.
At first glance, the book puts one in mind of The Book Thief (see previous entry). Jacob’s ghost narrates Jeremy’s tale, much as Death does Liesle’s, which results in a rather formal, slightly antiquated prose style. Both Jeremy and Liesle have dealt with great loss, and both find solace in reading. The books diverge there. Though Jeremy’s story is based in the tales of The Brothers Grimm, which should result in some originality, the novel initially feels generic and familiar. Characters are two-dimensional: individual with defining characteristics but not fleshed out beyond that. Jeremy is shy, studious, and embarrassed yet excited by Ginger’s attentions. Ginger is maddeningly selfish, coming up with multiple plans in which to involved Jeremy but refusing to tell him the “surprise”, despite the “surprise” consistently ending up badly for Jeremy. Maddy and Marjory come as a pair, indistinguishable besides their initial physical descriptions, and Jeremy’s father is miserable and pathetic. Some characters are even reduced to a fairy tale description, with Deputy McRaven being mostly notable for being a mean troll. Jacob is the most exciting and well-rounded with the richest inner life, understandable since we spend the most time with him and in his head. Additionally, things are brought to our attention multiple times and then just dropped or never explained. Normally this might not be a problem, but when something is identified as odd or curious or ominous repeatedly, I expect an explanation or at least a conclusion that makes the lack of an explanation acceptable. Here it feels more like McNeal forgot what he was setting up and didn’t follow through.
A little over half-way through, the novel picks up in an explosion of originality when the identity of the Finder of Occasions is confirmed and he sets his evil plot in motion. If you are observant, the Finder’s identity will not be any real shock, but the revelation is a deliciously anticipated and satisfyingly creative moment. Entering this part of the novel is where the line between fairy tale and real life becomes harshly clear: good characters who die in fairy tales are usually brought back to life while in real life, they stay dead. It is also where a previously understated subplot involving missing children comes rushing to the forefront in a sadistic and horrifying way. I don’t wish to say more lest I spoil it for you, but I think this portrayal of childhood terror made real is what caused my general disquiet last night.
I received this book as an advance reader’s copy about 6 months before its publication date. Clearly part of the fun of an advance reader’s copy is to read it before anyone else, which I did not do. (It was published in June 2013). I had even forgotten I had it, but I chose to read it now because I recently saw that Maria Tatar had praised the book and the accuracy of McNeal’s research on the Grimms. (A quick reminder of my super-fandom of Maria Tatar’s work is here.) Indeed, the novel is highly accurate, and McNeal’s recreation of the style of the Grimms’ tales in both Jacob’s narration and the overall structure of the book is quite impressive. As a lover of fairy tales, I appreciate when authors utilize tale structure, plot, and type accurately and appropriately rather than just relying on remembered knowledge or Disney films. Overall, the novel has some problems, but the book’s status as a finalist for the National Book Award makes me think so those problems were fixed before publication. As such I would recommend it. It improves as you read, and the burst of creativity in the second half is worth the blandness of the first half and certainly merits the book’s National Book Award nomination. Give it a try, and let me know what you think!