unfortunate

Unlucky for some.

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”

This year I have so far read eighty-eight books. Seventy-five of them were new to me and had never been read, but thirteen of them had been read before. I scattered mentions of them throughout the year, but now it’s time to review the series as a whole, which feels like one hell of a job. I am, of course, talking about A Series Of Unfortunate Events, the masterpiece series of Daniel Handler or, as he’s more commonly known, Lemony Snicket.

The series is presumably known to you in some degree or another. The first one came out in 1999 and they appeared speedily after that, meaning that the series was complete just seven years later. It is the story of three orphaned siblings, inventor Violet, bookworm Klaus and food-loving Sunny Baudelaire, who are given the bad news that their parents have been killed in a fire that has destroyed their family mansion. They are now alone in the world and must go to be looked after by their guardian, Count Olaf, thus beginning the titular series of unfortunate events that follow the children. Their parents left behind an enormous fortune and Olaf wants to get his hands on it, and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. No one believes that the Baudelaires are in danger until it is almost too late, but once they’ve left Olaf’s house, things just go from bad to worse.

The series progesses, thusly:

It opens with The Bad Beginning, which features the plot I’ve mentioned above. Olaf and his troupe of actor friends are hungry for the fortune, but since no one can get hold of it until Violet, the eldest child, comes of age, Olaf comes up with an alternate plan – he will marry Violet (who is a distant niece of his – yep) and then kill her, bequeathing the money to him. The plan is scuppered at the last minute, and the siblings are whisked away.

the bad beginningThe second book is The Reptile Room, in which they meet perhaps the only guardian that gives a damn about them and appears to be a genuinely nice person, Uncle Monty. A herptologist, he studies and collects rare reptiles and amphibians from across the globe, including the Incredibly Deadly Viper, a snake with the friendliest temperament of any so far found. Olaf returns in disguise and kills Uncle Monty, meaning that the siblings are once again sent to a new guardian.

In The Wide Window, they stay with the very nervous Aunt Josephine whose true passions are grammar and remembering her late husband. She lives on the edge of a lake and a huge storm one night blows the house away and out across the water, leaving the Baudelaires struggling to sail a boat home in the waves. As you can assume by now, Olaf is not far behind.

The series progresses with The Miserable Mill, where the three begin working in a lumbermill with nothing to eat but chewing gum and a strange hypnotist living across the way. They are then sent to boarding school, which is the focus of The Austere Academy. Here they are tortured by weird rules, school bullies, a violin-playing vice prinicpal and Count Olaf in disguise as a PE teacher. The series deepens here when the Baudelaires meet the Quagmire triplets (well, two of them) who inform them that there is a secret afoot and that the children must all find out about “V.F.D.” and their questions will be answered. With nothing more to go on than those initials, the two families are split. The Quagmires are kidnapped, and the Baudelaires are sent to their next guardian, the vile Esme Squalor.

In The Ersatz Elevator, the three are back in their home town but living in a penthouse of a huge towerblock, their problems exacerbated when Esme teams up with Olaf and the two run away together to cause more mayhem, the Quagmire triplets in tow. With no suitable guardians left, the siblings are then sent to a village, The Vile Village, where they run with the logic that “it takes a village to raise a child”. The already dark series becomes darker here as the whole thing turns on its head. Arrested and charged with murder, the siblings are soon on the run and they are now all alone in the world with no one to protect them, while more and more nonsensical clues about V.F.D. pile up. From now on, it is the children who begin to disguise themselves and perform nefarious deeds.

In The Hostile Hospital, the siblings find potential evidence that one of their parents has survived, but they are unable to do anything about it when Violet is kidnapped by Olaf and nearly killed. The three eventually escape in the boot of Olaf’s car and they end up at The Carnivorous Carnival, where they pretend to be circus freaks. After dealing with a dodgy psychic and a pit of very hungry lions, their sorrowful adventures continue across the Mortmain Mountains, the events of which are covered in the tenth book, The Slippery Slope. In this one, previous characters begin to reappear, more and more of them over the next three books, and the siblings find the remains of a V.F.D. headquarters, learning more about the strange organisation that suffered a schism that split its members into volunteers (such as the Baudelaire parents) and villains (like Count Olaf).

hospitalIn The Grim Grotto, the siblings are aboard a submarine and then have to deal with a fungi of extremely deadly properties as Sunny battles for her little life in an underwater race against time. Once above water again, the three meet Kit Snicket, sister to the “author”, who takes them to a hotel for The Penultimate Peril, where the last eleven books begin to tie themselves together and events begin to make a little bit more sense than before, but only a little.

Finally, in The End, Violet, Klaus, Sunny and Count Olaf are castaway on a strange island where Ishmael rules over his people, advising them to stay safe, do what he says, and avoid the trechary of the outside world. And it is here that the Baudelaire siblings get some more answers, and also where the story finishes.

Whew.

People who compare this book to Harry Potter in its success are missing the point entirely. This isn’t Harry Potter – this is modern day Roald Dahl at its finest. Handler is a master of the absurd, mixing the hilarious with the harrowing, the daft with the dark. His style is mesmerising and he is fond of using ridiculous concepts, such as informing you how or when a character is going to die many pages before they do, or taking time out to explain what the bigger words mean (often with very strange definitions) or telling the reader about some strange event in his own life. His style is tangential and bizarre (there’s two pages containing nothing but the word “ever”; another two are totally blacked out; one book explains the water cycle multiple times) but you’re hooked because he’s so insistent that you shouldn’t read the very sad story he is laying out that you know you have to.

The books are all about right and wrong, and how sometimes it is impossible to distinguish between the two. The children believe that they are doing the right thing all the time, and that they know what Olaf does is evil. However, the siblings later are responsible for death and arson and subterfuge, much like Olaf was before them, leading them into questions of moral relativity, and how sometimes good people can do evil, and evil people can do good. Even in the final pages, Olaf himself is revealed to be probably not as clear-cut villainous as was previously suspected. Most of the characters have had horrible histories, but they end up choosing whether to be good or bad, showing that our choices matter more than our backgrounds, which is a theme recurrent in much modern literature. There’s also a lot of talk on the nature of secrets – how some matter and some don’t, how some can protect and some can damage. But who are they really protecting, and why?

the endThe series is strong, intelligent (there are dozens of references in each book to literature and literary figures), funny, incredibly dark (one particularly memorable moment is having Olaf stroking a knife against 14-year-old Violet’s thigh under the dinner table) and above all moving. Violet, Klaus and Sunny are strong role models, continuing in the face of adversity and never giving up, despite whatever horrors the world throws at them. The idea of having Lemony Snicket as an actual character in the books also adds a meta level to the whole thing and works wonders, as he is as cowardly as the Baudelaires are brave – or is he? We know so little about him – not even why he is recording these events – but he is always there, several steps behind or ahead of the action.

Perhaps my only complaint is the ending. It ends rather abruptly and there are hundreds of questions that remain unanswered. However, that is in keeping with the series. Snicket is careful not to reveal too much, or he assumes the people reading will know what he’s talking about. Much is never explained – a sugar bowl that the siblings chase for half of the series doesn’t even get a fleeting mention in the final book – but the whole thing works magically. Daniel Handler is a madman to have concieved such a convoluted plot as this, and maybe even he doesn’t have any answers to some of the questions.

It most definitely is a series of unfortunate events, but I feel fortunate that I have read them. And I think you should too.

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