A Series of Unfortunate Events 1-3

A Series of Unfortunate Events 1-3

Although I am not going to argue that A Series of Unfortunate Events is in any way aimed at a teenage audience, I’ve decided to make it the subject of today’s review. As I noted in my FAQ, I will also occasionally consider books for a younger market if I feel that they have the ability to appeal to older readers. I think that this series more than fits that criterion.

A Series of Unfortunate Events was written by Lemony Snicket (pen name for the author Daniel Handler) and is a fascinating series for many reasons. The first novel, The Bad Beginning, was original published in 1999 but has been rereleased in a number of different special editions since then. It was rapidly followed by twelve sequels – The Reptile Room (1999), The Wide Window (2000), The Miserable Mill (2000), The Austere Academy (2000), The Ersatz Elevator (2001), The Vile Village (2001), The Hostile Hospital (2001), The Carnivorous Carnival (2002), The Slippery Slope (2003), The Grim Grotto (2004), The Penultimate Peril (2005) and The End (2006). Many short supplementary novels have also been published in order to further flesh out the story, though I’m not going to talk about them (if you wish to learn more, Wikipedia is your friend). For the purpose of this review, I am only going to focus on the first three novels only.

The series are told by Lemony Snicket himself, an unidentified individual who has been researching the tragic story of the Baudelaire siblings. Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire were three ordinary children whose lives were thrown into disarray when their parents were suddenly killed in a terrible house fire. Their parents left to their children an enormous inheritance and stated in their will that they wanted their children to live with a relative until Violet turned eighteen and was able to claim it.

In The Bad Beginning, the children are placed in the care of a distant relative called Count Olaf. Taking an immediate disliking to him, the siblings quickly learn that their hatred is justified. The Count is physically and verbally abusive and makes no secret of his plans to embezzle the children. When his plans are foiled at the end of the novel and the children are removed from him, Olaf becomes the primary antagonist of the series, adopting all manner of disguises as he tries to find a way to steal the fortune and do away with the three orphans.

In The Reptile Room, the children are put into the care of their Uncle Monty. Uncle Monty is a renowned herpetologist who has just discovered a new species – the Incredibly Deadly Viper. The children are thrilled to be able to help him in his research, until Olaf turns up on their doorstep under the guise of Uncle Monty’s new assistant, Stephano. It is not long before their lives take a tragic turn again as murder soon follows.

In The Wide Window, the Baudelaire children are put into the care of another relative – Aunt Josephine – an elderly widow who is afraid of everything. Shortly afterwards, Aunt Josephine commits suicide, leaving a note instructing that the orphans are to be left in the care of her friend, Captain Sham. The siblings quickly realise that the Captain is just Count Olaf in disguise and set about looking for a way to prove this. Klaus notices something strange about the note and soon realises that it conceals a code. Aunt Josephine is alive and they need to find a way to rescue her. However, a hurricane is beginning to blow and the hiding place that she has chosen lies on the other side of a lake filled with deadly leeches…

The first three instalments of A Series of Unfortunate Events are a fascinating read. Snicket writes in a very unique style, weaving elements of mystery and steampunk into a striking gothic narrative. The story is presented in a surprisingly sombre way, never making light of the bad things that happen to the children to ensure that its title is well earned (after all, there is nothing funny about child endangerment, suicide and murder). However, the tone of the novels is always lightened by a self-aware humour in Snicket’s asides. While the events of the story are presented in complete seriousness, Snicket’s dry comments and overly elaborate descriptions of simple concepts add the necessary sprinkle of comic relief that prevents the story from ever becoming too bleak.

The setting of the tales is also very unique, seeming at various points to be both modern and old fashioned. While there is a definite sense of Victoriana about the story, occasional references to neon lights and walkie talkies reveal that the setting is actually far more modern than this.  It feels like a cross between a Roald Dahl story and a Tim Burton film – the mean-spirited humour of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory alongside the gothic fantasy of Edward Scissorhands.

It’s the dark edge of the story that really makes it enjoyable for teenagers and adults. I spoke in my last review of a perceived need to over-simplify stories aimed at young adults because authors underestimate the intelligence of their audience. In stories for younger children, there is often a sense that writers fear being controversial, avoiding adult themes and anything that could be upsetting. What they don’t seem to realise is that children aren’t that fragile. I’m obviously not advocating that children are exposed to sex, drugs and rock and roll, but it’s true that children do like to be challenged (and maybe even a little frightened) by what they read. Lemony Snicket’s work is a breath of fresh air purely because it does just this – presents an adult gothic novel in a way that’s accessible for children.

Of course, the story is not without its flaws. Although I personally enjoyed Snicket’s characteristic writing style, I can understand why some would find it grating. There is a reoccurring joke in which Snicket (or another character in the story) defines a word to make it easily understood by the reader. Although some of these descriptions are entertaining to read, the joke is used so frequently through the first three novels that it does eventually begin to become tiresome (the word “tiresome” here means “done to death”). Similarly, Snicket often reveals important plot twists (including character deaths) chapters before they actually occur, thus removing any tension from the story.

The general structure of the stories is also very formulaic. The Reptile Room and The Wide Window both begin with the orphans being left with a relative. A few chapters are spent illustrating the character traits of the relative only for things to turn bad when Count Olaf reveals himself (always in an unconvincing disguise). Count Olaf gets the upper hand, but then the children use their various skills to outwit him. The Count gets away but the children are taken back into care again, ready to be transported to the next relative. The Bad Beginning breaks this structure slightly, but only because Olaf is the relative in this story and so more time is spent towards developing him as a character. This unimaginative story telling is the thing that I found most frustrating about the novels and I feel that the series will improve dramatically if it manages to break this pattern in the next instalment.

The characters in the novel are incredibly memorable. Although initially defined only by their traits (Violet is a genius inventor, Klaus reads and has an excellent memory and Sunny likes to bite things), they gradually develop into more rounded individuals as Snicket reveals more about past events of their lives. Although a lot of the other characters are fairly flat in comparison, broadly split into good and bad people, they are all presented as wonderful caricatures that exaggerate their negative traits and make them wonderfully entertaining to read about (even if we do want to just see some of them fail).

The Baudelaire children have to be likable, because we want to see them triumph over adversity. Although Snicket makes clear that they will never have a happily ever after, the novels succeed in making us hope that they will. The children are so nice that we don’t want anything bad to happen to them, and the novels are effectively dark because such terrible misfortune follows them everywhere. However, in this darkness there is always a message of hope. The three children always have each other, and they draw strength from their bond. They advocate trying to find the hope in any situation because it’s better than drowning in misery. This really is an important lesson for children to learn.

When some adults criticise childrens’ literature for being too morbid, they seem to forget that their kids don’t exist in an idealised world of unicorns and marshmallows. As sad as it is, sometimes terrible things happen to good children. In order to help them come to terms with this, children need to have access to literature that deals with difficult topics. If we deny this of children, however will they cope if bad things do happen to them?

Sorry for the length of this review, but there was a lot of ground to cover. In conclusion, although The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window are not aimed at a young adult audience, they are still incredibly enjoyable to read. Although somewhat repetitive, the setting and characters are vibrant and imaginative and there is a dark humour to the stories that will appeal to people of all ages. They are definitely worth a read and I definitely intend to explore this series further in another review in order to see how the tragic tale continues to unfold.

The Bad Beginning can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

The Reptile Room can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

The Wide Window can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

11 Comments (+add yours?)

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