Far Far Away is a YA fantasy set in the fictional Never Better, a town that is mysteriously difficult to find if you’re an outsider. On the inside, it’s a very insulated kind of Anytown, USA. The story is set in roughly the present day, but it could have been set any time between roughly 1950 and now: there are cars, but no one goes anywhere much; there are landline phones, but no mention of cells; I don’t think I read the words “computer” or “laptop” at any point. It’s the kind of town where everyone knows everyone, and everyone watches everyone. Ginger Boultinghouse, age 16, for instance, might incur judgment for getting caught sneaking out of Jeremy Johnson Johnson’s bedroom in the middle of the night.
Jeremy, also 16, lives with his father, who mentally checked out when Jeremy’s mother left the family some years before. Having lost his grandfather shortly thereafter, Jeremy is something of a loner whose only company is the voice of the ghost of Jacob Grimm. I promise this is nowhere near as twee as it sounds.
Jacob has wandered the earth since his death in 1863, but has no idea why he is unable to move on to the next world– until he learns from another spirit that he cannot move on because he is troubled by “an unknown or unmet desire.” The spirit directs Jacob to Jeremy, because not only can the boy talk to ghosts, he’s also a lover of fairy tales. The spirit also warns Jacob that Jeremy is in danger from a Finder of Occasions– “someone who lies in wait until the opportunity is afforded to do harm or wreak havoc… without leaving a trace behind.” Not knowing the identity of the Finder of Occasions or the nature of the danger Jeremy is in, Jacob resolves to protect the boy by encouraging him to work hard at school so that he can attend university in a few years.
If I’d read nothing but the synopsis above, I would have passed over this book and been certain I’d missed nothing special. I’m so glad I didn’t skip this one. While it’s not rare for me to be disappointed by books that others have raved about, Far Far Away overturned all my expectations. It is deliciously weird, with the darkness of Roald Dahl’s work. The blend of that darkness with larger-than-life situations and humor reminded me of some of Louis Sachar’s work. The book’s atmosphere is uncanny in the way Never Better looks a lot like our world, but somehow feels different. A similar quality distinguishes the characters. McNeal creates characters who resemble real people in that most of them are neither entirely good or evil– but these characters nonetheless occupy fairy-tale roles: the eerily silent older woman of ambiguous sanity, whose son was lost years ago, is a stand-in for a witch; the beautiful younger woman whose four previous marriages dissolved under unknown circumstances is a reference to the typical seductress, or perhaps a kind of reverse Bluebeard; the jovial baker whose near-magical cakes are the delight of the town is frequently compared to Santa Claus in appearance; and Jeremy’s father, whose grief and cowardice mark him as the classic fairy-tale father, passively abandons his child to his own devices.
I had nearly forgotten how refreshing it can be to read a book and truly have no idea how things are going to turn out. Far Far Away was the most pleasant surprise I’ve read in a long time.