‘What follows is the strange fateful tale of a boy, a girl and a ghost…’ And it is a strange tale in which folk and fairy tale mesh with the real world. Jeremy Johnson Johnson is a boy with troubles; his mother has disappeared, his father has become a bedridden recluse, their home is about to be repossessed. However, Jeremy has a secret. He can hear ‘ghosts’ or more specifically, one ghost, the ghost of Jacob Grimm, collector of folk tales. Under Jacob’s guidance, Jeremy is hoping to go to College. But first there is the matter of the Finder of Occasions , a shadowy sinister presence intent on bad. What about the children who are disappearing? And finally, there is the gorgeous Ginger Boultinghouse intent on distracting Jeremy from his studies. The stage is set.
This is not a book for those looking for a quick read that carries one helter skelter through the plot. However, it repays perseverance, moving from a slow beginning to reach a chilling – indeed grim climax, before it achieves a happy ending. On the one hand it is a conventional YA coming-of-age novel that charts the emergence of Jeremy, a shy 15 year old, and the beginning of a gentle relationship with Ginger. This is handled with a certain degree of humour which is refreshing and the characters are neatly presented. Then there is the folk and fairy tale element which exists beside – indeed overlays – the conventional narrative. From the name of the mid American town, Never Better, to the bakery with its jolly, white bearded baker, the reader is aware that this is indeed a tale that has its roots in folk tale; and folk tales are not always nice or gentle. But this is not surprising when the main protagonist – indeed the most engaging – is the ghost of Jacob Grimm, It is his voice that colours the narrative, for he is one telling the story. It is his character, old fashioned, academic, slightly acerbic, affectionate that stands out, and lifts the whole from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
In many ways this is an unwieldy novel – there are questions in the plotting, the mix between real life and folk tale is not wholly successful . This particularly affects characterisation which, on the whole, lacks depth. However, the atmosphere is intriguing , a clever mix of the ordinary and sinister that reminds one of horror settings such as The Stepford Wives. Then, and here the novel really succeeds, in Jeremy and especially Jacob Grimm, the author has created two memorable characters. The reader wants to get to know them and to find out what happens next. In Far Far Away, McNeal is tapping into a trend that has been emerging from the States in which traditional themes, indeed, traditional tales, are retold or reshaped, often playfully, as in Valente’s journeys through fairyland. Here playful elements remain but the darker aspects of such tales are central. While some may find this too much, others, especially young readers from KS3 and up will be engrossed by this richly textured narrative.