Book Review: The House With a Clock in Its Walls

The House With a Clock in Its Walls
By John Bellairs

My Edition:
Paperback, 179 pages
2004, Puffin
ISBN: 9780142402573

Lewis, newly orphaned, moves in with his uncle Jonathan. He soon finds that Jonathan and his eccentric but kind neighbor, Mrs. Zimmermann, are more than they seem – they’re witches! Jonathan is happy to perform acts of magic to amuse Lewis, but he’s distracted by the constant ticking of a clock hidden somewhere within the walls of the house. Jonathan has a hunch the clock is evil and when Lewis accidentally resurrects the former owner of the home, they learn she means to use the clock to destroy humanity.

I’ve been listening to Richard talk about his love for Bellairs’s books for quite some time. But what sparked me to buy the book was the preview for the movie with Jack Black (which I might watch someday). I saw it and thought, hey, that book is probably pretty good! Turns out I should have taken Richard’s recommendation ages ago!

This is a pretty short read, and while the details are minimal, they’re just enough. Lewis is a great character – he’s not your typical child hero. He’s overweight, has low self-esteem and almost no friends. But he’s happy with his new home and immediately takes to the idea that his uncle and neighbor have powers. He also loves to read historical non-fiction books; the kind I would find boring even as an adult, let alone as a child. And when the going gets tough later in the story, Lewis proves to be braver than he gives himself credit for.

By page 6 Bellairs sets the scene for spooky happenings with Jonathan’s strange reaction to the town clock striking the hour:

“Jonathan stopped talking. He froze on the spot. He dropped the suitcase, and his arms hung limp at his sides. Lewis, frightened, looked up at him. Jonathan’s eyes were glazed.”

From there, we follow Lewis as he explores the large home of his quirky, magician uncle. Lewis enjoys his new home, despite his uncle’s nighttime excursions to quest for the hidden clock. Mrs. Z and Uncle Jonathan are instantly warm and welcoming to Lewis – I think it would have been too depressing if he’d been unhappy with his new caretakers and living in a possibly-haunted house. Lewis spends much of his time exploring, playing games (magical and otherwise) with Jonathan and Mrs. Z and reading. He’s a book sniffer too, which I appreciate. Jonathan and Mrs. Z have a great relationship, full of sarcasm and well-meant teasing. They’re constantly calling each other weird names like Brush Mush and Hag Face.

While the search for the clock is the main plotline, the book isn’t overly spooky. There’s magic and ghosts and a plot to destroy the world, but what kept me invested in the story was Lewis.

He’s quiet and introspective and I marked several passages of his that were particularly astute or insightful:

Lewis makes a friend and in an attempt to impress him, invites him over to watch Jonathan perform magic. Lewis’s friend Tarby naturally doesn’t believe this is possible. After the event, Tarby is forced to admit magic might be real, but is unhappy about it. Lewis thinks, “Most people do not like to be proven wrong, even when they enjoy themselves in the process. Tarby was a popular boy, and he was used to being right about everything.”

How very true! While Tarby seemed to enjoy Jonathan’s performance, afterwards he’s distant and Lewis worries he’s losing his friend. Clearly Tarby wasn’t receptive to the idea of real magic like Lewis was and it’s much easier to deny the existence of something strange than accept you might have been wrong about reality.

After Lewis resurrects Mrs. Izard, the former owner of Jonathan’s home, he struggles with the enormity of what he’s done, but can’t bring himself to tell his uncle. He knows it’s not because Jonathan is hard to talk to – quite the opposite, Lewis loves Jonathan dearly. “Then, why was Lewis afraid? Well, he was afraid because he was afraid.”

Doesn’t get simpler than that! I think we all need to realize sometimes it’s ok to just feel a feeling, without any particular reason.

Lewis starts to get a little paranoid as the aftermath of his resurrection of Mrs. Izzard. “When you are hiding something, you get the feeling that every other secret is connected to your secret.” I think we can all relate to that feeling at some point in our lives.

Ok, I’ll stop going on about Lewis now. He was just a great character to read about. Jonathan and Mrs. Z are great too. Mrs. Z is especially badass at the end of the book and I’d love to know more about how they met and how they learned their magic.

One nitpick I have is that Lewis doesn’t seem particularly upset about the loss of his parents. He thinks about them periodically and while it doesn’t seem like he was really close with them, I would think he’d be more upset. Overall, it doesn’t largely affect the story, but it’s something I wondered about now and then. Maybe Bellairs didn’t want to tackle too much.

I look forward to reading more of the Barnavelt books, as well as more of Bellairs’s work in general! It’s a bummer that most of his work seems to be out of print – I have a feeling I’ll be hunting these down for quite some time.

I definitely recommend this for:

+ Younger readers looking for something a little spoopy, with a relatable main character
+ MG lovers of all ages looking for a quick fall read
+ Anyone who collects books Edward Gorey illustrated

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