This reading group guide for The Land of Lost Things includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author John Connolly
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. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction The redemptive power of stories and family is revealed in New York Times bestselling author John Connolly’s atmospheric tale set in the same magical universe as the “enchanting, engrossing, and enlightening” (South Florida Sun Sentinel) The Book of Lost Things. “Twice upon a time—for that is how some stories should continue . . .”
Phoebe, an eight-year-old girl, lies comatose following a car accident—a body without a spirit. Ceres, her mother, can only sit by her bedside and read aloud the fairy stories Phoebe loves in the hope they might summon her back to this world.
But an old house on the hospital grounds, a property connected to a book written by a vanished author, is calling to Ceres. Something wants her to enter, to journey to a land colored by the memories of childhood and the folklore beloved by her father—a land of witches and dryads, giants and mandrakes; a land where old enemies are watching and waiting. . . .
The Land of Lost Things. Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Whether it is Ceres’s hope in the face of death or the complex moral compasses of the characters, ambivalence is a strong theme in The Land of Lost Things
. Where do you find ambivalence in the novel?
2. Within the story, the novel tells a few fables, such as “The Tale of the Two Dancers” and “The Woodsman’s First Tale.” What purposes do you think these fables serve for the main storyline?
3. What parallels do you see between the fables and the events in the main story?
4. Each chapter title is a word written in an archaic language, such as Old English, Old Norse, and others, with the modern English translation underneath. What do you think is the reason for this?
5. Before the ultimate death of the Huntress, Ceres tells the bear-man and badger-woman, “as long as you prolong her agony, you remain her captives . . . but by inflicting this torture, you compound your own.” Given the pain the Huntress had caused, do you think that the Huntress should have died or do you think she should have stayed alive in order to suffer?
6. How did you feel about the author’s subversive take on the traditional story of Rapunzel?
7. Elsewhere is a land of various settings, from the witches’ house to the fortress village Salaama to Balwain’s territory. Whether in terms of story or the descriptions, which setting was your favorite to read about?
8. The novel creates sweeping new lore, from the village of Salaama to the Fae’s terror on mankind to the politics of Balwain’s land. Which part of the novel’s lore did you want to learn more about?
9. In the chapter titled “Swicere,” the author gives context to all the nobles in the council, but the Fae swiftly kills them soon thereafter. Why do you think the author takes the time to introduce in depth these characters who will be shortly slaughtered?
10. Throughout the novel, the characters describe the Crooked Man as a terrible, insidious, conniving being. Toward the end, the Crooked Man appears to Ceres in a horrible body made up of various insects. What did you expect the Crooked Man’s appearance to be?
11. As the story develops, you learn that Calio is more than they seem, in appearance and in character. As their life concludes, what are your thoughts on the last dryad and their final act of saving Ceres, rather than taking her life?
12. Do you think that Ceres should have taken the Woodsman’s offer of having Ceres and Phoebe live in Elsewhere?
13. In the last chapter, “Wyrd-Writere” or “One Who Writes an Account of Events,” Ceres writes, “Twice upon a time—for that is how some stories should continue—there was a mother whose daughter was stolen from her—”. What do you think of the novel’s loop structure?
14. The last sentence of the novel (“. . . as the pen caresses the page, a finger moved”) implies that while the future is uncertain, Phoebe may survive her coma. In terms of story, do you think Phoebe should survive the coma or not survive the coma?
15. In the chapter “Leawfinger,” the book introduces the idea that “in stories, as in life, there are no secondary characters. Each of us is the center of our own universe . . .” After finishing this novel, which character’s story would you want further explored after the events of The Land of Lost Things
? Enhance Your Book Club
1. In The Book of Lost Things
, the main character is a boy, and in this novel, the main character is a woman. Discuss how the novel would be different if the genders were reversed in The Land of Lost Things.
2. With the fantasy settings, vivid characters, and adventurous scenes, The Land of Lost Things
would make a great film or television adaptation. What parts of the novel would you love to see in live action? Who would be in the cast? Do you think this would be better as a film or a television series?
3. The novel features familiar creatures: the Fae, the harpies, the dryads, and more. Whether it be other fantasy novels or resources on mythology, look into them and discuss the differences between the author’s depictions of these fantasy creatures and your observations of them in other media.
4. Phoebe’s fate remains uncertain at the end of the novel. Does she live or die? Discuss: In either case, what might the future hold for both Ceres and Phoebe?
5. Read (or re-read) The Book of Lost Things
with your book club and compare it to The Land of Lost Things
in terms of the writing and the roles and characteristics of the recurring characters. A Conversation with John Connolly Q: What inspired you to create the character of Ceres?
A: When I wrote The Book of Lost Things
, I had only recently become a parent (to two boys, my now-wife’s children). That first book is very much about childhood and the transition to adulthood, perhaps in part because I was watching these younger people dealing with the same, but also because it may have reminded me of my own childhood, on which I drew for the character of David. But now, seventeen years have gone by, and I’m a very different person. One of my sons is married, and both he and his brother are living abroad. I worry about them, and I worry about my mother, who is in her nineties. I suppose these are the issues that confront us at a particular stage of adulthood: worrying about our children and
our parents. The next stage, I think, is just having people worry about us.
In the book, Ceres is dealing with similar issues, but in the case of her daughter, Ceres’s worries are much more painful than the norm. There’s a part of her that would like to escape, to relieve herself of the burden of care and worry. When she enters Elsewhere in The Land of Lost Things
, she’s forced to confront some of these emotions, and the implications of them. Q: After all these years since the publication of The Book of Lost Things, how did you feel about revisiting the character David, who is now an adult, in this fresh story line?
A: Actually, when I sat down to write the novel I didn’t know that David would return. I don’t tend to plan books in that way. Usually, I’ll just start with an idea, or an image, and see where that takes me. When I began The Land of Lost Things
, I knew only that it would involve a mother with a very sick daughter, and she would travel to a land similar to the one in The Book of Lost Things
, but that land would be altered by her experiences and by the stories and myths she recalls from her childhood. Gradually, the story found its way to David—or David found his way to the story. Q: Which character in The Land of Lost Things do you relate to the most?
A: Perhaps Ceres, because of what I said earlier. Sometimes, when we’re young, or when we’re angry with our parents, we don’t realize just how much of their time is spent being concerned about us and how much they miss us when we’re not around. Because Ceres’s daughter is unresponsive, Ceres is in a situation where she can see and touch her daughter, but can’t communicate with her. Phoebe is both present and absent, and the strain takes a terrible toll on her mother.
But I also feel that Calio may be one of the most interesting characters in the book. They’re so embittered, so alone, but as we come to realize, they’re a kind of storehouse of memories and identities, the last of their kind. I can understand why Calio is the way they are. Q: How was your experience writing from the perspective of a woman in her thirties, as opposed to the young David in The Book of Lost Things?
A: First of all, I’m very resistant to the argument that writers shouldn’t explore the thoughts and lives of those different from them, because that exploration is the first step toward empathy and understanding. As for writing from a female perspective, I’ve spent much of my adult life with the same woman, watching how she has dealt with motherhood, and listening to her speak of it. My experience as a father has been different in ways, but there’s still so much we have in common when it comes to our sons. Both consciously and unconsciously, I’ve drawn on so much of our shared life for Ceres. Q: Whether it be the characters or events, is there anything in the story that particularly and personally resonates with you?
A: All of it. I tend to think of writing as being a bit like dreaming. It’s said, whether it’s true or not, that you’re everybody in your dreams; you just put different facets of yourself into different people. Writing a novel is similar. You have to imbue every character with something real, and that something comes from yourself. I once remarked that I’ve given every sin I’ve ever committed to someone in my books. The characters, good and bad, all have a little of me in them. Q: Are there any novels or forms of media that inspired you while writing this novel?
A: Well, one of the reasons I think I may have wanted to return to the world of these books was that, during the COVID pandemic, I worked on a screenplay for a proposed movie of The Book of Lost Things
. The movie didn’t come to pass—one of the things we realized was that there was too much material in the novel for a movie, and it might be better suited to longer-form television—but the experience of revisiting that first novel, taking it apart and reassembling it for a different medium, almost certainly fed into the creation of The Land of Lost Things
. It is, like its predecessor, a very visual book, even if—I hope—it is subtly done. I like to leave as much as possible to the imagination of the reader, because that’s what I think lends power to a novel. A novel that describes everything for the reader isn’t a very interesting reading experience. Q: Do you think this novel is closer to a book for adults than The Book of Lost Things, which attracted a large young adult readership?
A: The Book of Lost Things
wasn’t actually written for young adults, or not explicitly or exclusively so. I don’t think in those terms, as I don’t see too much difference between writing for adults and young adults. Instead, I think those two groups of readers may approach a text in differing ways. The Book of Lost Things
is, as we learn at the end, a book written in recollection by the adult David, and it’s filled with regret, which I’m inclined to view, rightly or wrongly, as primarily an adult emotion, or at least the notion of regret accumulated over a long life. It’s a book about remembered pain. But a young adult may have a much more immediate sense of pain upon reading the book, especially if they’re coping with the loss of a parent in childhood or adolescence.
It’s one of the themes of the novel: no two readers will read a book in quite the same way because we bring all of our life experiences to it. Being human, we’re destined to go through many of the same things—loss, grief, falling in love, falling out of love, perhaps becoming parents—but each of us will experience those things in our own way. They’re general experiences, but felt very individually. Similarly, books may appear to be set texts, but they’re not. We may all be reading the same words, but we’re filtering them through our individual consciousnesses, and each of us may take something different from what we read, based on the lives we’ve lived. Q: The novel appears to have a subtle environmental message. Is that the case?
A: Ceres brings to Elsewhere her feelings about, and experiences of, her own world, just as David does in The Book of Lost Things
. She sees a Russian tank, because the war in Ukraine is ongoing in her world, but she’s also very conscious of environmental issues, since this is the world that she may have to bequeath to her daughter, and she’d prefer if it was not completely despoiled. The novel doesn’t preach—at least, I hope it doesn’t, or not too much—but it’s hard to live in the world and not be worried about its future, especially as a parent.
A version of Pascal’s wager comes into play here. Pascal was a French mathematician and philosopher who offered a reason for accepting the existence of God, which was that, if God does exist, the benefits of believing in Him are great, while the disadvantages are considerable. In a similar way, we’re better off believing in human-impacted climate change, and doing something about it, than taking the risk of not doing anything at all. We owe it to our children and grandchildren, who won’t thank us for not acting on it. Q: Would you ever consider writing a second sequel to this series?
A: I never thought I’d write this sequel, so never say never. If I did, I imagine it would deal with old age, but I’d have to want to write it very much. After all, it took me seventeen years to figure out that I wanted to write The Land of Lost Things
. I don’t rush into these decisions. . . . From the Desk of John Connolly
During the seventeen years since The Book of Lost Things
was first published, I have often been asked whether I intended to write a sequel to it. My answer, until recently, was that I didn’t see the need for one. That novel seemed to me to be self-contained. It didn’t require a sequel.
Yet over those years, I found myself returning to the world of The Book of Lost Things
—attracted, I suppose, not only by the strangeness of it but also by my personal connection to the narrative. I drew very much on my own life to create the character of David: his attic room filled with books was similar to my attic room as a boy; his experience of OCD and therapy was mine, and something of his experience of the loss of a parent was mine, too. All my books are personal to me—I wouldn’t wish to write them otherwise—but this was perhaps especially the case with The Book of Lost Things
So as time went on, I wrote two short stories: “The Rat King” and “The Hollow King,” which belonged to that universe, and both of which were adapted for radio broadcast by the BBC. I then gently revised The Book of Lost Things
for its tenth anniversary in 2016, the only time I’ve ever done that with one of my novels. Before and during the COVID pandemic, I worked on a screenplay for a proposed film of the novel (which hasn’t yet come to pass), and finally began to accept how much I wanted to explore that world once more. This was the first step toward deciding how
I might explore it.
I was in my mid-thirties when I wrote The Book of Lost Things
. Jennie, who would later become my wife, had recently moved from South Africa to Ireland, bringing with her two young sons, and we were all adjusting to a new life together. Looking back, some of that may have fed into the writing of the novel: adjusting to a strange environment, forming a family, and dealing with the tensions that naturally arise between parents and children, even in the happiest of circumstances. But having children in my house perhaps also led me to look again at my childhood and my memories of it, pleasant or otherwise.
On the other hand, I was in my early fifties when I began working on The Land of Lost Things
, which means that I’m a different person in many ways. I’m older, obviously, and have lived a bit more of life. I’ve watched my sons grow up and leave home—one of them is now married, and both boys are living and working abroad—and I’ve seen my mother enter her nineties. (My father has been dead for more than three decades.)
I find I spend a lot of time worrying about my sons—Are they safe and well? Are they happy?—but more particularly my mother. She’s frailer, and has endured some falls, although she remains very sharp mentally and continues to live independently not far from my home. I keep my phone close to me when I go to sleep in case something happens to her—to any of them. No good comes from a call in the dead of night, but as we grow older, the likelihood of receiving one becomes greater. As a child psychiatrist once told my parents—indeed, as the psychiatrist in The Book of Lost Things
tells David’s father—I may be a bit of a worrier by nature, but I’ve also reached that stage in life where I have cause to worry. I have adult responsibilities, and people to take care of. It would be more unusual if I didn’t worry, I think. It would be a sure sign that there was something wrong with me.
All of which goes some way toward explaining how I came to write The Land of Lost Things
. Had I written a sequel to The Book of Lost Things
in the years immediately after its publication, in 2006, it would probably have repeated much of what was in that first book, because I hadn’t changed enough. If it didn’t disappoint readers, the novel would have disappointed me. It would have been another book about childhood, or maybe adolescence; a little different, but not different enough.
But if The Book of Lost Things
is a book about childhood—not a children’s novel, though, or even a young adult novel, which we’ll come to in a moment—then The Land of Lost Things
is a book about adulthood and specifically parenthood. (And if you’re not yet a parent, well, the chances are that you may become one eventually, so it’s far from alien territory.) It touches on subjects that are sometimes difficult to discuss and emotions that may be hard to acknowledge, especially for a mother or father: What happens to us when something befalls one of our children? How do we cope? And what is to become of us if we find, even temporarily, that we can’t
cope? If someone, at our weakest moment, were to offer us a way out, a means of escape, would we be tempted to take it? These are the questions with which Ceres is confronted in The Land of Lost Things
—and she does try to escape her responsibilities, even if it’s while she’s in a bewildered, depressed state.
When Ceres enters an alternative reality through the house once lived in by David, the protagonist and author of The Book of Lost Things
, she finds herself transformed. She becomes a teenager again, a girl of sixteen. I chose—or it may be that Ceres, unconsciously, chooses—that age carefully. It’s a time, I think, when we’re on the cusp of adulthood. We have agency, but we don’t have too much responsibility. Ceres gets to have an old head on young shoulders. She has the mind of a thirty-something woman, yet the body and energy of someone half her age. But she also has to deal with a flood of teenage hormones, combined with a certain adult awareness of her vulnerability as a young woman in a strange, dangerous land. She sees how men look at her, men who are capable of acts of violence or who may actually have committed them. And all the time, she is riven by guilt over not being there for Phoebe, her daughter, even as she wonders whether Phoebe even knows that her mother is no longer present.
As Ceres journeys deeper into the land she comes to know as Elsewhere, she is confronted by women exploring different ways of being. Some, like of Rapunzel or Red Riding Hood, are more extreme than others. By contrast, Morgiana, in the Woodsman’s First Tale, is just trying to free herself from what she sees as a mundane existence. Ceres also meets strong maternal figures, such as Saada, the leader of her village; the giantess Ingeborg, wife of the giant Gogmagog; even, if only by the example they leave behind, Mistress Blythe and her daughter, who are already dead by the time Ceres learns of their existence. And then there is Calio, the dryad, whose identity is not fixed but contains multitudes within themselves, and is, in that sense, a far more complex being than anyone—even Calio—understands.
But to return to a subject that often comes up when The Book of Lost Things
is discussed, and may well come up again with this novel: I’ve heard The Book of Lost Things
described as a “young adult” book, but it really isn’t, and I didn’t think of it in those terms when I was writing it. Instead, it’s a book that adults and young adults can read in different ways. For adults, it may be a novel that touches on remembered pain: of childhood, adolescence, and parental loss. It’s pain that still resonates, but the locus of it lies in the past. For young adults, especially those who may be struggling with the illness or death of a parent, or the arrival of a new stepmother, stepfather, or half-sibling, the effect of the book will be much more immediate, because all this is happening to them right now
Also, when people speak of “young adult,” they often put the stress on the first word. For me, the second is more important. I recognize that young adult readers of The Book of Lost Things
or The Land of Lost Things
will be adults very soon and are already preparing to engage with the adult world. The novels, I hope, acknowledge this and do their best to walk with younger readers for a time on that road. The Land of Lost Things
tries to talk to two groups of readers, one older, one younger, without talking up to the first or down to the second. As with The Book of Lost Things
, it deals with experiences that most of us are destined to share, if we have not done so already. This is one of the things that fiction is for, I feel: to find the universal in the specific, and make us feel not only a little less alone in the world but also understood. That’s what we all want, I think: not sympathy, but empathy. Fiction offers us that possibility of empathy, but also, by allowing us to see the world through the eyes of others, invites us to feel empathy in turn.
I don’t know if I’ll ever return to the world of Elsewhere in a novel. If I do, I think I’ll have to let a lot of time elapse to enable me to change again. The funny thing is, though, that I don’t think I’ll ever feel quite like an adult, no matter what I write, or when I write it. As I type these words, I’m fifty-five, but I don’t feel fifty-five inside. Last night, I chatted over FaceTime with my older son, who is about to turn thirty-three. He was wondering how he could be approaching that age without actually feeling old enough to be
thirty-three, and whether I felt the same way about being fifty-five. I assured him that I did, and that feeling was unlikely to change, nor should it. I wouldn’t want it to, not for him, or for me. Like Ceres, my younger self, I think, remains within reach. He lives inside me. I don’t know that I could have written The Book of Lost Things
or The Land of Lost Things
were he not still present.
So thank you for taking the time to read this book, whatever age you are or feel. I’m glad we got to walk together for a while.