If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Beaudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Beaudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.
Why I read it
Sometimes you just want to re-immerse yourself in something smart, funny, familiar and lovable. This is one of those times, and this is one of those books.
About the book
This is the first of a thirteen book series, the Series of Unfortunate Events. I read them while I was in uni, living in my first sharehouse, and I kind of fell in love with them. I’d keep my eye on the release date for whichever one was coming out next, and that morning I’d head down to the local book shop at opening time to buy it. Of course, they’re kids’ books – but sometimes writing is so great you just don’t care.
As Lemony Snicket (god, what an amazing pen name) makes clear, it’s not the story that’s delightful. The three Beaudelaire siblings get put through the wringer – their parents die in a fire at the start of the story, and they then have to thwart the evil machinations of their new foster parent, the (really) evil and (actually) abusive Count Olaf. But all the way through they manage to remain good people, somehow. And they are very good at savouring the small moments of niceness that can occur even in the most terrible of situations, and the book is peppered with these little oases in time.
The writing is great. In very brief passages, Snicket can convey just how much love and respect the siblings have for each other, and what their life before the disastrous fire was like.
‘None of us knows how to cook,’ Klaus said.
‘That’s true,’ Violet said. ‘I knew how to repair those windows, and how to clean the chimney, because those sort of things interest me. But I don’t know how to cook anything except toast.’
‘And sometimes you burn the toast,’ Klaus said, and they smiled. They were both remembering a time when the two of them got up early to make a special breakfast for their parents. Violet had burned the toast, and their parents, smelling smoke, had run downstairs to see what the matter was. When they saw Violet and Klaus, looking forlornly at pieces of pitch-black toast, they laughed and laughed, and then made pancakes for the entire family.
And of course, there are the trademark Snicket-isms: the grim warnings to put the book down, the refrain of ‘… a word which here means …’, and his self-referential humour:
‘You and I will stand here for the duration of the act. That means the whole thing.’
‘I know what the word “duration” means,’ Klaus said.
There are other tricks and games hidden through the book too – there’s the delight at the bit near the end, when Snicket lets slip some intriguing facts about ‘himself’, and the subtle reference back to the person named in the dedication at the front of the book, and speculation about who that could be. And of course, the tiny hints about the cause of the fire, and whether the parents themselves had more going on than the children knew about, and what the meaning of Count Olaf’s ‘eye’ is, and so forth. And before you know it, you’re so intrigued you’re waiting in front of a book shop at 9 a.m. waiting for the newest book in a children’s series.
A book for book lovers
Snicket wrote these books for the kind of kids who already love to read, think and create – children like Violet, who loves to invent contraptions, and Klaus, who loves to read and find out about the world. It’s reflected in the choice of the cloth-spine hardcover format, the ragged-edged, textured pages, and the inspired choice of Brent Helquist to do the illustrations.
I think any introvert will find the same kind of peace with these books, as the Beaudelaire siblings find in the many libraries they stop in throughout the series.
This book was mostly read in Port Macquarie