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Lost Boy
by Christina Henry
Penguin, $15.00, 304pp
Published: July 2017

Christina Henry has a number of books to her name, including seven in the 'Black Wings' series, but it's her other novels that pave the way to this one. 'The Chronicles of Alice', which comprise 'Alice' and 'Red Queen', are revisionist takes on Victorian children's literature, naturally inspired by Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland'. This does a similar job, revisiting J. M. Barrie's 'Peter Pan' to turn the whole thing on its head, explaining how young Jamie, Peter's first acquisition from the Other Place, grew over time into his nemesis, Captain Hook.

You might think that such a goal would be a difficult one to obtain, but Henry makes it seem simple. Just humanise Jamie, as the surrogate father to Peter's fifteen or so Lost Boys, and abstract Peter away with a twist here and a revelation there until we realise that he's different, not human, at least not the way the rest are. And once that approach is in motion, it almost rolls itself to the finalé, or at least so we believe. Of course, Henry really had to craft its journey and it's clever crafting indeed.

Peter Pan, as we'll all remember, was the boy who never grew up. He found his lost boys on the streets of Victorian London, and gave them a home, on a magical island where they wouldn't grow up either, such an enticing promise to the poor and hopeless. Of course, they wouldn't be alone on the island, because it also contained crocodiles and mermaids and pirates, but Peter's boys are smarter and quicker than them, so one-upping them is just play.

Well, there's an obvious dark side that Henry didn't have to dig deep to find. C'mon over to my island and one-up crocodiles and pirates? That sounds fine in a Disney cartoon adaptation, but just think about it for a moment. Boys scraping to survive on the streets of Victorian London would have to be smart and quick, or they wouldn't last, but none of them would have any idea what a crocodile was, let alone how violent and dangerous. And pirates, stripped of their romantic sheen, are just people who steal and kill for profit on the high seas. I'd back them in a fight over a bunch of kids any day.

Well, Henry doesn't take long to explain that not all Peter's lost boys turn out to be smarter and quicker. Whenever they're not smarter and quicker, they die, and Jamie has a growing graveyard to back up how often that happens. What's more, while he cares about these boys, Peter doesn't. He just has to flit off to the Other Place and bring another one back. And another. And another. Rinse and repeat until death has no meaning and Peter Pan suddenly doesn't seem to be someone to look up to.

What keeps him on top is his charisma. Henry never explores where Peter came from and how he found this magical island, at least not much. Jamie does wonder on occasion if Peter was born there, but that's it. It's just another abstraction, a suggestion that he's not like the rest of them. Jamie is, because he was the first lost boy, one smart and quick enough to survive when so many others died.

The relationship between Peter and Jamie is an important one and one that underpins the entire book. I should add that it's quite obviously close and special but not sexual. As Henry turned this light story dark, she could easily have gone there, especially as we discover that some of these boys do actually grow up, merely slower than they should, but she doesn't go there and that's good. Her Peter is a perpetual child, never old enough to acknowledge the existence of sex (or that girls don't have cooties and should be avoided). Her story, like Barrie's, is all about the border between child and adult and Peter can never cross it or the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.

Jamie is our avatar, the teller of this story, and we grow up with him, albeit perhaps centuries too late. I enjoyed watching Jamie grow, initially just metaphorically but eventually literally. To acknowledge the concept of responsibility means knocking on that border and to adopt it means crossing over. Once the border is crossed, the journey into adulthood is inevitable and the spell, whatever prompted it, breaks. Put simply, Jamie grows up and that growth highlights just what Peter is and what he's done.

I liked the ideas here and I liked how Henry kept her focus incessantly on Peter, Jamie and his Lost Boys. Everything else is an abstraction because, to kids, they're just the enemy or the monsters or whatever. Only as Jamie grows up do we start to think about the pirates, for example, and why they're moored on the other side of the island, apparently forever, vanishing only to replenish their crew after skirmishes with the Lost Boys. Only as Jamie grows up do we start to think about the Many-Eyed, strange creatures who live on the plain, there apparently only to be avoided. Only as Jamie grows up do we start to think about the Other Place, our own world, and the orphan boys who vanish from it, never to be seen again.

It's an enticing dark side and Jamie's choice to leave childhood behind and actually grow up prompts a whole domino effect. Things change and patterns break. Generations of consistency falls apart in mere days and we're kept on tenterhooks figuring out not where we're going, because we all know of Captain Hook, but how we're going to get there. This is all about that journey, never the destination.

So, for all that 'Peter Pan' was a fantasy story for kids, this is a drama for adults without a lot of fantasy anywhere to be found. The only other character we recognise is Tinkerbell and she's almost not in the book and never in the foreground; only Peter speaks to her and we aren't privy to the conversations. I'm intrigued as to whether Henry is going to mirror her 'Alice' books (pun not intended but I'll take it) and make this a duology. It ends where it needs to end, but it could work as a first half. If so, I'm more than interested in the second half, with Jamie adopting the role of Captain Hook and building a crew to take down Peter Pan. Maybe she'll write it, maybe she won't. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more books by Christina Henry click here

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