Friday, 16 September 2011

Book Review | Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Buy this book from

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. And a strange collection of very curious photographs.

It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here - one of whom was his own grandfather - were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a desolate island for good reason. And somehow - impossible though it seems - they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.


There is something deeply unsettling about the photograph on the cover of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, don't you think?

Never mind that it's black and white - though in this day and age the very idea of something old is apt, I'm sure, to unnerve some. But no, I don't think it's that. Look instead at the girl; unassuming little thing in stockings and a frock, stood in the middle of the woods. Look at her face.

Strange, isn't it, how it seems to belong on the body of a much older woman?

Look at her feet. Closely, now... do you see what I see?

Nothing ambiguous about that, is there? By jove, the girl looks like she's levitating!

This picture, an "authentic, vintage found photograph" (p.35) from the collection of Yefim Tovbis, sets the scene marvelously for all the painful, wondrous things to come in Ransom Riggs' debut novel.  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is in fact a narrative contrived - or rather ordered around - a selection of such photographs, and though these are little more than curios, they confer upon the darkly fantastic beats of this brief volume - the first in a proposed series, as I understand it - a sense of innocence despoiled, or beauty maligned, that describes this uneasy and deeply endearing novel to a T.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is at heart the story of a boy dealing with his grandfather's death. We never have the pleasure of meeting Abraham Portman for ourselves - in fact the book begins with his untimely passing - but Jacob, just sixteen years old when he finds his batty old grandfather gasping his last in the woods behind his home, remembers him fondly enough for us all to get the measure of the man: as a good man, first and foremost, but also a real character. A Jewish refugee from Germany during the war, come to America to escape his past, Abraham's tall tales about awful Lovecraftian monsters and the period he spent in a home for "gifted" children were like the gospel to Jacob when he was younger. Especially because he had photographs to back up his crazy claims.

...I really did believe him - for a few years, at least - though mostly because I wanted to, like other kids my age wanted to believe in Santa Claus. We cling to our fairy tales until the price for believing them becomes too high, which for me was the day in second grade when Robbie Jensen pantsed me at lunch in front of a table of girls and announced I that I believed in fairies. It was just deserts, I suppose. (p.16)

Jacob has always had a certain connection with his grandfather - a connection his own father never had with Abraham - and he is with him, too, whether for good or for ill, when he passes. And as he does, in the periphery of his vision, Jacob glimpses a creature "like something out of David Lynch's nightmares" (p.45) tearing through the forest: a sight that will haunt him for months to come.

Could it be that there was something to his grandfather's lunatic ramblings after all?

Jacob's psychologist, a necessary evil, doesn't think so, but when our troubled young protagonist discovers the location of the home his late grandfather told such wonderful and terrible stories about - on an island off Wales - and begs his parents to take him there come the Summer, Jacob finds in Dr. Golan an unlikely ally. And so they go to Cairnholm.

Terrified and anxious and excited, Jacob wastes no time in trekking out to the ruins of Miss Peregine's Home for Peculiar Children - for so it was known, before the bombing. What he finds there, however, is not at all what he had expected:

My grandfather had described it a hundred times, but in his stories the house was always a bright, happy place - big and rambling, but full of light and laughter. What stood before me now was not refuge from monsters but a monster itself, staring down from its perch on the hill with vacant hunger. Trees burst forth from broken windows and skins of scabrous vine gnawed at the walls like antibodies attacking a virus - as if nature itself had waged war against it - but the house seemed unkillable, resolutely upright despite the wrongness of its angles and the jagged teeth of sky visible through sections of collapsed roof. (p.79)

There - right there! - the horror of Miss Peregine's Home for Peculiar Children begins in earnest. And what of it there is is supremely, even effortlessly effective. But stuffed into this magnificent short novel there is also - count 'em - comedy, fantasy, romance, mystery, science fiction, and last but not least the coming-of-age fable. Miss Peregine's Home for Peculiar Children, then, is many things. One thing it is not, however - not for a single, solitary moment - is dull.

In fact, Ransom Riggs' debut boasts so very many aspects that, I'll be honest, I was expecting an identity crisis to strike these charming ideas down all through the second half.

I was nervous and baffled and queasily excited all at the same time. Part of me felt like something momentous was about to happen. The other part of me expected to wake up at any moment, to come out of this fever dream or stress episode or whatever it was and wake up with my face in a puddle of drool on the Smart Aid break room table and think, Well, that was strange, and then return to the boring old business of being me. (p.139) 

But no. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children may not be a neat novel, or a tidy one, but it is from first to last entirely its own, distinct thing, fearsome but family-friendly - the better for the prospects of the inevitable film 20th Century Fox mean to make of it - only as delightful as it is disturbing, and in equal measure chilling and touching.

Truly, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a terrific thing, beautifully presented and confidently composed, and perfectly poised - I kid you not - to inherit the legions of readers searching for the Next Big Thing to attend midnight launches of. Overlook it at your own peril. 


Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs

UK & US Publication: June 2011, Quirk Books

Buy this book from

Recommended and Related Reading


  1. Nice review! This one just came onto my radar a couple of days ago and I've added it to my wishlist. Sounds great!

    I love a bit of 'spook' :D

  2. This sounds fantastic, and DAMN is that a creepy photo.

  3. I keep seeing really stellar reviews for this book. Time to investigate I think.

  4. @Nathaniel - There's creepier, even! If you're man enough, take a look at the videos on Ransom Riggs' YouTube Channel, here:

    Dude need to make a movie already.

  5. Great review! You are so correct about this eventually blowing up - and Riggs really deserves it! This book is fabulous.