I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
As a kid, I watched a lot of Disney movies, and although I enjoyed the heroes and princesses, the characters that interested me the most were the villains. I don’t know what this says about me as a person, but I found Ursula, Scar, Hades, and the like far more compelling than their heroic counterparts.
Given my soft spot for fictional antagonists, it’s no surprise that Never Never pleased me as much as it did. It’s the origin story – or, I suppose, the entire life story – of Captain James Hook, Peter Pan’s arch-nemesis.
Much as I loved this book, the two of us didn’t initially get off to an auspicious start. Never Never is very slow at first, beginning with 12-year-old James’ family life in London and detailing how he meets Peter and is tricked into accompanying him to Neverland. The first several chapters are a slog, and it took me ages to get through the entire novel because I kept taking long breaks and having to go back and reread from the beginning. Once I finally made it to the end of the first section, though, I was completely hooked. (Pun intended! 🙂 )
I should warn you in advance: Never Never isn’t exactly what you’d consider an uplifting book. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it grim. Initially lured to Neverland with a promise that he can simply visit “on holiday,” James is dismayed when he realizes that he’s trapped in Peter’s fantasy world and can never return home to his family. Devastated, James joins the ranks of Lost Boys, where he remains until he commits Neverland’s gravest sin – beginning to grow up. Cast out by Pan, James soon realizes that options are limited in Neverland; if you aren’t with Peter Pan, you can only be against him.
“You were selected. So you could come and go from Neverland as you pleased, and so could your dreams…But the ones Peter likes, they stay here forever.”
Shrum does a fantastic job of imbuing James’ story with an air of wistfulness and loss. Lost family, lost home, lost friends, lost innocence…James has been robbed of just about everything good in his life, and the tragic thing is that he knows it. Peter and his Lost Boys wear figurative blinders; they’re childish and self-absorbed and don’t recognize what they’re missing. Nor are they troubled by conscience. In fact, they literally FORGET people and truths that are inconvenient to them and are therefore able to go on happily living in their little fantasy world. In contrast, James remembers everything that happens to him. He’s the only self-aware, memory-burdened person in Pan’s twisted world, and it’s a lonely and terrible thing.
What’s ironic about James is that he has all the makings of a hero…if only this were another world, another story. It’s Peter Pan’s treachery, and the madness that it drives James to, that makes him the villain in Pan’s Neverland. I couldn’t help but sympathize with James, even as I watched grief and bitterness drive him farther and farther down a path that I couldn’t condone. He transforms from James, a bright and noble boy, to Hook, a debauched, arrogant, ruthless pirate, and though it’s fascinating to watch, it’s also painful. He becomes less and less recognizable as he loses himself in revenge, guilt, and rage.
“‘Tell me, pirate,’ she said after he’d been silent for a while, ‘how am I to change what Neverland has willed me to be? You clearly couldn’t.’
Hook recoiled, ripped from his musings, struck by her words. ‘What did you say?’ […]
‘I’m saying that you were not a scoundrel when you came here. You were not a pirate. But it was your destiny, wasn’t it?’”
It’s not just James’ transformation into Captain Hook that makes Never Never so fascinating; it’s also Peter Pan himself. I’ve got to give it to Shrum – in Peter, she’s written a supremely infuriating, hateful little wretch of a character. He’s selfish, irresponsible, and cruel, and I found myself despising him almost as fiercely as James did. The thing about Peter, though, is that he has a strange allure. Neverland is his creation, having been manifested from Peter’s dreams. As a result, everything in his world is compulsively attuned to him. The land itself responds to his moods, which is scary given see how volatile he can be. It makes Neverland a place that is both wondrous and ominous, lovely and sinister.
“It was too beautiful to be real. But, everything in Neverland seemed too something to be real. Too beautiful, too horrible, too fantastic, too savage.”
Peter’s influence over Neverland and its inhabitants makes for great tension in the story. Think about it – what hope does James, Peter Pan’s sworn enemy, have for happiness in a world literally designed for and by Peter Pan? The odds are stacked against him. Even James himself feels the pull of Peter’s magnetism: “[S]omehow, in the darkest depths of him, as Peter was trying to murder him, a piece of James wanted to give him whatever it was that he wanted.”
Between James Hook and Peter Pan, Never Never has everything you need for a captivating story about the rise and fall of a villain. The only thing that might be considered missing is an element of hope and cheer, but I thought Never Never was better without it. The book is haunting and tragic, but that’s the kind of villain origin story that calls to me the most. If you have similar tastes, Never Never is definitely for you.