There have been a few recent screen adaptations of the classic tale of Pinocchio, the marionette who wanted to be a real boy. TJ Klune takes this tale and flips it in his latest book In the Lives of Puppets, while retaining everything that makes the story universal. And he does so in a way that is joyful, touching and, as in the original, ultimately redemptive.
The book starts with a fairy tale of sorts. A man called Giovanni (who is, the text assures us, not actually a man), has built a solitary sanctuary in the woods. One day, two people come through, on the run from some unknown threat, and leave him their baby for safekeeping and he ends up raising that baby as his own. The story itself picks up twenty-one years later, that child, Victor, has two robot friends – a hyperactive Roomba called Rambo and a snarky medical droid called Nurse Ratched. The three, together with a third robot are soon on an adventure together in which Victor will learn the truth about the world and his place in it.
There is much to enjoy about In the Lives of Puppets. The characters are delightful and their interactions are often laugh-out-loud funny. But there is also plenty of pathos, and an underlying strain of tragedy that tempers the narrative. Klune sets Victor and his companions on a seemingly impossible quest, maintaining a high level of tension that keeps the pages turning. And there is additional pleasure to be had in just appreciating the ways in which Klune uses, adapts and in some ways inverts the best known elements of the underlying tale of Pinocchio.
While most of the characters are robots, this is really a novel about compassion, humanity and what it means to be human. In some respects, the book slightly overplays this aspect with every stop along the way leading to a chance to reflect on these issues – the meaning of mortality, the importance of character flaws, the ability to dream, a sense of compassion and hope. But it is not surprising, as these are also the concerns of Pinocchio – that is, what does it mean to be a “real boy” – just recontextualised.
Overall, In the Lives of Puppets is a joyful, quasi-fairy-tale adventure with a slightly idealised but nonetheless engaging character at its not-so-artificial heart.