Book Review: Far Far Away, by Tom McNeal
You know, when the Brothers Grimm started appearing in pop culture, I was sure it was a passing fad. While there didn’t seem to be a ton of traction, there was certainly a persistency to their use. Truthfully, I didn’t find much of interest until Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. It’s been 4 years since that book, though, and Jacob and Wilhelm are still hanging around. In McNeal’s novel, that’s more than just a metaphor, as the author takes the legacy of Die Brüder in a new direction.
Rather than retell stories or, worse yet, turn the Brothers into medieval ghost hunters, McNeal brings Jacob in as a real, thoughtfully created character. Long dead and now roaming the world, Jacob finds himself drawn to the side of a young boy named Jeremy Johnson Johnson. Jeremy, whose entire life is an oddity in the small town of Never Better, can hear Jacob when nobody else can. This sets up a sort of mentoring relationship in which Jacob, who is also the book’s narrator, serves as both Jeremy’s tutor and protector. Exactly what he needs protecting from, however, remains unclear for most of the book. All Jacob knows is that a Finder of Occasions is somewhere in town, and that person’s a threat.
For most of the book, I had a nagging discomfort as a reader. It took me a long while to pin down the source, but ultimately I think it came from the narration’s melancholic tone. Jacob Grimm isn’t a sad ghost, but there is something gloomy in the cadence and word choice which suits his tradition. There is a definite pall cast over most of the book, even though his language is neither anachronistic nor forced. Even the heady presence of Ginger Boltinghouse, a local girl who takes an interest in Jeremy, is tempered by her own skittishness (as well as Jacob’s indecision over the quality of her character). This tone lasts for probably three-quarters of the book, shifting rather abruptly as the Finder of Occasions becomes known.
The book’s pacing is a bit episodic as Jeremy deals with the comparatively mundane challenges of saving his eclectic home from foreclosure, trying to figure out a girl, and facing a town full of bullies. This is appropriate, I suppose, given the nature of Jacob’s work, but the accelerated tempo towards the end was a welcome change. Fairly quickly, the novel transitions into a psychological thriller not unlike The Silence of the Lambs (but on a decidedly YA level). In this move, the author makes some rather interesting comments on mental illness. Indeed, this brief thread was so surprising and engaging, I wish McNeal could have found a way to incorporate it sooner. Doing so would have not only made the principal antagonist more rounded, but could have made the entire book more significant.
Which brings me around to what I found most perplexing about this book: its award nominations. McNeal has earned himself a spot as a National Book Award Finalist, along with Best Book recognitions from Amazon, The Horn Book, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly (among others). As a reader, indeed as a middle school librarian, I just don’t see it. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fine novel. The characters are good, the writing is solid, and the story is one worth telling. I just never felt as moved or overawed as when I read, say, The Graveyard Book or Wonder. From start to finish, Far Far Away struck me as a solid, middle of the road novel which made interesting use of the Grimm legacy.