I wanted to like this more than I did, but I fell into two of my crazy personal holes, and then I couldn't climb out in time. I have a problem with fictions that try to reclaim absent fathers, a big one. There are lots of fictions that do this, and I will now date the crap out of myself with the following movie references: “Liar, Liar”, “Mrs. Doubtfire”, “The Santa Clause”. All of these admittedly shitty, populist “comedies” have the common theme of absent fathers learning a Valuable Lesson About Sharing through hijinks and nut-shots. These are fictions aimed at families – read: women, mostly – but even in your more manly fare, the theme pops up. The Road
and a bunch of other post-apocalypse fiction hinges on fathers protecting/returning to lost children – read: sons, mostly.
For whatever reason, a lot of my friends growing up had apocalyptically bad relationships with their dads, and I don't think we were some kind of statistical anomaly. My friend C., who had to flee the country of her birth because her father had set up his pregnant girlfriend in the next apartment and then removed her mother, his wife, from all of their joint finances. His brother gave her the funds to leave. He then set to trying to prosecute his ex-wife for kidnapping, and bled her dry with lawyers fees until he was finally prosecuted successfully for embezzlement at work and spent five years in jail. Every single time C. had a graduation or important event, she believed, BELIEVED, that that son of a bitch would appear and give her the respect and admiration she deserved, and every single time he failed to appear. Even at 12, the rest of us knew this was folly and lost hope, but what can you say to that at 12? What can I say to it at 35? I could go on telling horror stories, but I shouldn't. There's a crisis here somewhere, a crisis of masculinity and parenthood, and I inescapably brought my own crisis into my reading.
Now that I've accidentally gone on a rampage, I'd like to apologize to Gregor; this book is simply not just escapist wish-fulfillment for the kiddies. Er, you know, it *is* partially escapist wish-fulfillment, but I don't mark that as a bad thing, and I'm beginning to trust that Collins has a sense of subversiveness towards young adult fiction that I can really groove on. Gregor is an abandoned 11 year old boy. He had two sisters: one slipping into the edges of adulthood, the other a two-year old munchkin. After his dad disappeared two years before, the family fell on hard financial times, and the early sections that take place in the real world, the here and now, have a crunchy, brittle realness to them that make my chest ache. His mother can't afford to send him to summer camp this year, using him instead as day care for a failing grandmother and a tiny sister, and the way Gregor both begrudges and accepts, but mostly accepts, this hard reality is true, painful, exact.
And Boots, ah, Boots. Boots is Gregor's tiny sister, and I just love her. I've had some babies, and it has only reinforced for me how awfully small children tend to be written; how twee, how precious, how prone to the insightful outburst at the most opportune moment. Gimmez-moi un break, as the French would say. Boots naps, she fills her pants, she has tantrums and sings the same song so many times everyone considers killing her. But she also loves with a capacity that is both haphazard and infectious. In short, she's real, maybe realer than the Underland that makes up the geography of most of the book.
Boots and Gregor fall down a hole in their laundry room and land in the Underland, a sort of subterranean world like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere
or China Mielville's unLondon
. They are lucky enough to fall in with people, not with the rats or bats or roaches that also inhabit this world, and learn of a prophecy and Gregor's father's possible existence. This is where my next personal hole yawned before my feet, because prophecy, of any kind, makes me itchy and crazy. Short of the Orestia
, I think that all authors should abandon the idea of prophecy as plot-point, because it results in terrible poetry and godawful plot-twists. Again, this book doesn't commit the worst of these prophecy sins, but from the minute Gregor began close-reading the prophetic lines, my chest felt tight. When is the horrible other shoe going to drop? And how horrible will it be? Not horrible, but I worried.
But there's still something here, despite all of my personal insanities: a world of wonder and pain, of discomfort and ease. Gregor falls down a rabbit hole, and the Underland blooms with the soft light of the almost-blind luminescence of deep-sea fish: beautiful, terrible, foreign. I look forward to the day when my own kids can discover this world.