The Strange Library is a painting, perhaps a mosaic, more than it is a novel. And a piece of art, albeit a mass-produced one, more than a book.
Between the covers there is a short story by one of the world’s most popular and beguiling authors. It is the story of a meek boy who ventures into a library in search of an answer to a trivial question. There he finds old man eager to provide him with the resources he needs but seemingly intent on imprisoning him beyond a labyrinth underneath the library. There the boy’s only companions are a fearful sheep-man and helpful but mysterious girl who travels between worlds.
The boy, as I say, is somewhat meek. He is obedient to a fault, has difficulty saying ‘no’ and fears upsetting others. To escape, he will need the help of his new friends and will have to confront his worst fears.
The story is short and simply told and, on the surface, perhaps not terribly interesting. But it is saturated with symbols, themes and techniques – from animals and lunar influences, to light and darkness, strange or absent characters, numerology, questions of narration reliability, as well as fear, grief, loss and loneliness. The many questions left unanswered make it an exciting find for those who like the task of settling on a comprehensive interpretation of such works.
But the story is only one half of this book, Heavily illustrated, and with a library card wallet embedded in the front cover, the book is designed so words and imagery overlap or misdirect more than coincide. Occasionally, sentences will end with a picture. Elsewhere, pictures that do relate to words only meet each other partway. So, for instance, when the boy is brought hot cocoa, the page has pictures of tea cups that seem to come from an old china catalogue. Or when the boy mentions his pet starling, the opposing page has photos of various feathers that seems to have been taken from a textbook on birds. It is as if much has been deliberately lost in translation between writer and illustrator. There is also a variety of styles from gothic to pop.
The Strange Library may not offer much to readers. The story’s ambiguity and seductive symbolism will be of great appeal to the analytically and academically minded. While the beauty of its physical form will be enjoyed by those who don’t just enjoy reading books but collecting them.