Unless you have really cool grown-ups in your life, you won’t be introduced to dark humour until a few years after you could do with a dose. That means you have to find a darkly humorous children’s book yourself and if you’re lucky, that means you find ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’. The series, which starts with The Bad Beginning, tells the story of three unlucky siblings who take on an evil villain. It is packed with dry wit, appreciation of learning and warnings to listen to children. All things children and adults alike could stand to hear more often.
At the beginning of The Bad Beginning Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny Baudelaire are playing on Briny Beach when a man with a top hat and an eternal cough comes to bring them terrible news: their parents have died in a fire that has also destroyed their home. The children are to be put in the care of a distant relative who lives nearby. His name is Count Olaf, leader of a theater groupe and hatcher of evil plots. In Count Olaf’s house, the siblings are nothing more than slaves while their guardian tries to gets his hands on their family fortune. None of the adults they reach out to wants to listen when they raise the alarm, so Violet, Klaus and Sunny have to rely on each other to escape. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you if they succeed, but the first book is followed by twelve sequels, so suffice it to say that the children won’t be out of trouble anytime soon.
This synopsis sounds quite dark, but the book is full of comedy. This comedy doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the subjects and situations that it deals with, it just makes thoses themes understandable. Someone recently told me that children are drawn to extremes and that sounds plausible. It is no wonder than, that Lemony Snicket’s style of constant hyperbole works in a children’s book. He emphasises how horrible the Baudelaire’s situation is, how awful Count Olaf is, how sad the children’s story is and how the reader should put the book away and read something happier. Still, there is hope: the children are smart, kind and resilient. They help each other and use their individual talents to best Count Olaf and his troupe of comical but evil henchmen. Fourteen-year-old Violet is an inventor and engineer who can make useful devises out of whatever is lying around. Twelve-year-old Klaus loves nothing more than to do research and remembers everything he has ever read, thus accumulating extensive book knowledge. The infant Sunny, who likes to bite things, has not yet come into her own, but she shows every sign of an intellect as sharp as her teeth.
‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ and its distinctive writing style have become well-known, especially since the series was adapted for Netflix. I might try, as others have, to write a part of this review in Lemony Snicket’s tone of voice. But he is really the only person who can get away with his particular melancholy, cynical style and people who try to copy him fail without exception. Therefore I will quote some typical dialogue between the siblings:
“I hate it too,” Violet said, and Klaus looked at his older sister with relief. Sometimes, just saying that you hate something, anD having someone agree with you, can make you feel better about a terrible situation. “I hate everything about our lives right now, Klaus,” she said, “but we have to keep our chin up.” This was an expression the children’s father had used, and it meant “try to stay cheerful.”
“You’re right,” Klaus said.”But it is very difficult to keep one’s chin up when Count Olaf keeps shoving it down.”
“Jook!” shrieked Sunny, banging on the table with her oatmeal spoon.
As you might have noticed, the author is very present in his story. He breaks the fourth wall by explaining words and idioms, to go on page-long rants and to hint at his own circumstances. Throughout the series, it seems that Lemony Snicket himself is somehow connected to the children he has vowed to write about. This is only a small part of the mystery that surrounds the main characters and of which they know as little as the reader. Violet, Klaus and Sunny are portrayed as talented, smart and polite children who have grown up in a big house with parents who loved them, encouraged them in their interests, and provided them with books and support. But both in their parents’ past and in the shadows of their happy little world, things are not as perfect as they seemed to be. Because they are clever and resourceful, the children uncover these secrets bit by bit. Lemony Snicket follows their quest closely and comments on every step. As they learn, the reader learns to. That was especially the case with me when I read the books for the first time. I had only just started to read in English and Snicket’s explanations of difficult words and literary conventions actually helped me to understand the story better, even if those explanations were sometimes preposterous or highly specific to one situation.
Besides the wild plot and copious adventures, the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events is wonderful as well. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world full of eccentric characters who go to see opera’s and read books in beautiful libraries and give masked balls to pass on secret messages? Although that world can be cruel, the same goes for the real world, so I’d prefer one with more room for imagination and books. Part of the atmosphere of the Baudelaires’ world comes from the beautiful and mysterious pencil drawings of Brett Helquist, the books’ illustrator:
The Bad Beginning is short and uncomplicated, a beginning pure and simple. To really appreciated these first 165 pages, you should go on to read the rest of the series. If you like the style (of course, it might not appeal to everyone), you certainly will. I would recommend this book to bookworms of all ages, because Lemony Snicket understands the world as we see it through bookish eyes and in this day and age, that is very, very precious.
Victorian Award for the cliffhangers and lavish costumes
Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1), (New York, 1999)