Sunday, 31 December 2017

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the First: The Bad Beginning Review (Lemony Snicket, Brett Helquist)

The Baudelaire children - Violet, Klaus and Sunny - are suddenly orphaned when their parents tragically die in a fire. Their new legal guardian? A distant relative, the devilishly conniving Count Olaf, who will stop at nothing - not even murder most foul! - to get his hands on the Baudelaire family fortune. So begins the children’s Series of Unfortunate Events… 

I know this is a kid’s book but I surprisingly really enjoyed it - it not only held my attention but entertained me quite a bit too! Everything about The Bad Beginning embraces/lovingly parodies macabre/Gothic fiction, one of my favourite literary subgenres, albeit in a child-friendly, cartoonishly over-the-top style, so I found the book very appealing on an aesthetic level.

The atmosphere of the world is bizarrely, but not off-puttingly, anachronistic. It’s kinda faux-Victorian but also modern enough to have walkie-talkies, as well as being oddly skewed in general, full of absurdly one-dimensional supporting characters. The tone, along with the clever title and presentation, is determinedly, almost comically, downbeat in positioning itself as an anti-kid’s book, a playfully subversive touch I liked very much. 

Even the framing device plays into the Gothic impression. Daniel Handler is the real author but his name is nowhere on this book. Instead it’s attributed to yet another fictional character, “Lemony Snicket”, portrayed as a stereotypically gloomy writer a la Edgar Allan Poe (there’s even a character here called Poe) who dedicates the book to his dead love, Beatrice, while occasionally inserting himself into the text. A story within a story - an unexpectedly sophisticated device for a kid’s book and I loved it. It adds an element of mystery too - who is “Lemony Snicket” and will we discover more of his life as the series progresses? 

That said the writing is appropriately accessible for the intended younger audience and the world as a whole, and plot, is also simplistic to match. It’s an effectively engaging approach overall. 

Count Olaf is a deliciously evil villain and is by far the standout character. The Baudelaire kids were ok but not especially interesting and everyone else was basically just window-dressing. The story is entertaining enough but nothing too special or original - it didn’t blow me away and it’s a little too farcical in how it plays out, though it’s fine. 

The Bad Beginning is a really good start to this promising series - a charmingly strange and fun read!

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