A strange and depressive work at first sight, rather an odd idea given the age group (roughly 9-12) it’s aimed at. Doom, gloom and disaster, all related in a lugubrious tone.
There are, of course, thirteen books in the series, the last one being published on a Friday 13th.
Needless to say, the permanently depressive atmosphere in A Serious of Unfortunate Events is a comic device. Characters regularly get killed, especially good guys and not infrequently in a stupid, pseudo-heroic fashion, but nevertheless the whole thing is so over the top as to be funny. Those who remember the English comedian Les Dawson will recognise the style instantly; Dawson, himself a novelist, was such a master of the lugubrious complaint that he was asked to illustrate a televised Open University lecture in 1981. There is a bloody stupid, half-glimpsed, underlying Great Conspiracy, which is to be blamed for all of the mystery and much of the joy.
The titles are absurdly alliterative. The books themselves are chock-full of oxymorons, apostrophe, euphony, hypallage, bathos, parenthesis, allusion, antiphrasis, aporia, hyperbole… Well, you get the idea. This is stealth literature, and damn good it is too. Eng. lit. teachers take note: these are books you could dissect in class and be sure the little buggers have actually read the text for once. The literary allusions are not restricted to English-language works; for instance, you may notice Emma Bovary being treated for depression in The Hostile Hospital.
As far as the writing is concerned, it’s far superior to that other contemporary children’s epic, Harry Potter. Daniel Handler (the author’s real name) having rather more experience in writing (a prolonged search of all available online biographies failed to reveal what his University degree is actually in, but then does it really matter?).
Just a word of warning: don’t try to read several of the books all in one go, or you may find the mixture a bit rich. Spread them out, make the pleasure last, and I’m sure Mr Handler would be the first to remind you that there are other, very good, books out there – he is, after all, one of those leading the spearhead movement for decent children’s literature.
A Series of Unfortunate Events 1-13 Books Set Pack 13 Collection (Includes The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Grim Grotto, The Penultimate Peril, The End) (A Series of Unfortunate Events)
- The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket – review (guardian.co.uk)