It begins with a boy who was never a man and ends with a man who was never a boy.
Thus begins the absorbing English-language debut of Argentine-born writer Rodrigo Fresan. This brilliant, ambitious and hypnotically strange novel explores the creation of the Peter Pan legend, the nature of childhood, the nature of memory and of fiction, of growing old and growing up.
The novel is structured as the rambling confession of an author known by pen name Peter Hook, the son of rock star parents, who has survived a wild '60s childhood and become famous for his children's books about time-traveling boy hero Jim Yang. Over the course of one night, Peter Hook tells his life story to Keiko Kai, the child actor who stars as Jim Yang in the movie, along with the interlocking, parallel story of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, finally revealing a shocking disclosure of lost boys and stolen childhoods.
Fresan brilliantly intertwines the strange, true story of Barrie and the five Llewellyn-Davies brothers who inspired "Peter Pan" with Peter Hook's fictional story of a chaotic childhood in psychedelic swinging London.
For those familiar only with the "Neverland" movie's version of Barrie's relationship with the boys who inspired "Peter Pan," the boys' father Arthur was very much alive when Barrie first noticed his sons at Kensington Gardens. There were five sons, not four. George was killed in World War I. Michael drowned in the Thames at 20. Peter was in his 70s when he killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train.
The '60s interludes include sly references to Beatles' lyrics and random celebrity name-dropping. Along the way, Peter Hook brilliantly discourses on the nature of memory and of fiction, the coercive nature of film images and discusses every imaginable rendition of Peter Pan, from the first stage production to the "Neverland" movie.
Here's one particularly illuminating discourse on the nature of childhood and the truth of children's books:
"Childhood was invented by adults. Childhood can only be appreciated from adulthood, so all children's books are nothing but more or less desperate exercises in nostalgia and revenge. And oh how nice it would be if there were a series of children's books written entirely by children, children's classics produced by children between the ages of five and six. Real stories, not invented, stories that would relate, in just the right amount of time and space, the precise texture of weekends, the epiphany of birthdays, the fear of losing teeth or wetting the bed or the dark, the irreconcilable difference between winter and summer, those two completely separate dimensions."
In an afterword, Fresan reports that he was first inspired to investigate the Barrie story when he saw a film snippet in a French documentary of G.K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw dressed up as cowboys and playing in a garden with a little man who turned out to be James Matthew Barrie.
Fresan offers an unforgettable exploration of that figure now so firmly implanted in our psyches, of a boy in green who won't grow up, who might take us off to Neverland if we only dare to to leave the window open.
By Rodrigo Fresan (translated by Natasha Wimmer)
Farrar Straus Giroux334 pages, $25
Jean Westmoore is the News' children's book editor.