THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET Brian Selznick, illustrations by Brian Selznick, Scholastic Press, 2007, 534 pages, hardback, NZ$29.99
Every reader values that marvellous moment of opening a book that is truly original in its concept and successful in its execution. David Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a future classic, combining his talents as storyteller and illustrator. To summarise the plot would be pointless and reveal too much. Instead each reader has to experience the excitement of turning those first few pages.
The first sentence “From his perch behind the clock, Hugo could see everything,” is certainly intriguing enough but the reader doesn’t encounter these words until page 46. In the amazing pages before that, the reader seems to be viewing a dramatic and exciting film. In picture after picture, the eye is swept smoothly from the moon to the skyline of 1930s Paris and then down into a railway station, where a young boy is seen in the morning bustle. This is Hugo, who slips through a ventilation cover into the interior of the vast building. An old man sits wearily at a small booth, where he sells clockwork toys. From a hole in the face of the huge station clock, far above, Hugo watches the old man and Isabelle, the girl who helps him.
Now the opening sentence makes sense. But who is Hugo? Why does he hide? Why is the old man so sad? And why are we watching a film? The narrative swiftly tells us that Hugo is the orphaned son of a watchmaker, but then the mysteries deepen. The 158 pictures appear in wordless groups that maintain the mood and pace of a film and indeed some of them are scenes from the films of Georges Méliès, creator of the 1902 comedy-adventure A Trip to the Moon. As Hugo and Isabelle uncover secret after secret, we learn about the odd connections between stage magicians, clocks, the early cinema and the strange mechanical man which writes the message – appropriately part picture, part words – that makes the splendid conclusion possible.
With its handsome production values, this is a wonderful book to hold and even more wonderful to read. It conveys the same excitement that must have been felt by those audiences who watched the creations of one of the first magicians of light – the film-maker, who plays such an important part in this gripping story.
This review was first published on 4th March 2007 in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand.