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The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, was a novel that intrigued me when it first came out. I bought a copy in hardback, which is unlike me. It was so lush a thing to own; thick pages of creamy paper, and many pages of dense black and grey drawings. It is a sort of hybrid novel/graphic novel.


Having said that, although it is a lovely, lovely item, and has won the Caldecott Medal to boot, it has taken me literally years to get around to reading it. It turns out that I am just not that drawn to graphic novels (if you will excuse the pun). I find them very easy to put down, and so it was with this, which has been languishing by my bed for years.

This holiday I determinedly swept it into my case and vowed that I would finish it, come hell or high water.

It didn’t take long. The narrative part of the book is actually fairly sparse. Some pages having no more than a paragraph on them. Many pages are just drawings which bridge the gaps between the texts. It is mostly a visual treat.

It tells the story of Hugo Cabret, an orphaned boy, living in a magical behind the scenes world in a busy, Parisian railway station. Hugo helps his drunken uncle wind and tend the clocks in the station, and spends his spare time tinkering with and trying to rebuild an automaton that his clock maker father was working on when he died in a fire.

When Hugo’s uncle goes missing, he is left to scavenge for himself in the environs of the station, stealing food to survive and making forays onto the toy stall, to pinch wind up toys. He needs the mechanisms to rebuild his automaton.

All is going well until the day he is caught by the stall holder, who takes his father’s notebook from him.

Hugo’s world starts to fall apart, and he battles bravely to find a way to finish his task and stay out of the orphanage, which is his fate if he gets caught by the station inspector.

This is an odd little mystery story which takes unexpected (to me) paths, and leaves others unexplored. I wanted to know where Hugo’s mother was. I wanted to know more about the mysterious fire that left Hugo’s father dead. Basically I wanted to know pretty much everything except what the author actually tells you, which I found strange and mostly unappealing.

The story has been made into a film, which I understand is pretty magical, and makes sense of lots of the story in ways the book doesn’t. I wonder whether the book was always meant to be a film, or whether the book was spawned by the film. Either way, if you want to fully appreciate the book you really need to see the film.

The book is unashamedly graphic. Its main theme is the appreciation of the visual, the seeing of images and the way images lead us into magic. The words are really an afterthought, which is what I least enjoyed about the book.

It would, however, be perfect for younger readers who are transitioning from picture books to novels and who want something to bridge the gap, or fans of graphic novels and films. I recommend it to boys and girls aged 7 to 14.