I have been waiting for this weird and wonderful work to be published for years. Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite book of all time is Daniel Handler’s Adverbs, and while We Are Pirates is entirely different, it’s packed full of all the usual things that make Handler’s work brilliant. Powerful, funny prose that catches you by surprise with its unique ability to frame reality, a collection of believable characters that still somehow verges on the absurd—and, most importantly, an unusual, whimsical premise that gives the reader a view of our world via a lens of the extraordinary.
Troubled by parental oppression and plagued by the urge to plunder, fourteen-year-old Gwen Needle gathers an Alzheimer’s patient, a lovestruck boy, a Haitian nursing home attendant, and her new best friend into a group of pirates—real pirates, attacking and pillaging from their stolen ship in the San Francisco Bay. Meanwhile, her father is struggling to pitch an idea for a radio show, resist the temptation of his young assistant, and, hopefully, get his daughter home safely.
As a longtime fan of Handler’s, I appreciate the subtleties in this novel more than anything else. Handler has this delicious habit of creating inside jokes with the reader by reusing phrases, imagery, and snippets of dialogue, all while hearkening back to traditional pirate lore and dropping in other relevant allusions.
For example, the two teenage girls (those “wenches”) often encourage one another with a hearty “verily” during their exploits. Whenever possible, everyday situations are likened to life on the high seas in unexpected, sometimes ridiculous, but always enlightening ways. The storybook-fueled inspiration for their pirating journey could have been lifted right out of the plot of Don Quixote, complete with senile old man who has a somehow richer perspective on life. And the further you sail into the book, the stronger the parallels become, and the more familiar you feel with the characters, the author, and the story.
Daniel Handler recently stated in an interview: "[F]or the life of me I am mystified by the appeal of novels showing us the Way We Live Now. ... [M]ost of all I am interested in the Way We Don’t Live Now, a book with the essential strangeness of great literature. The strange illuminates the ordinary. But somebody tell me, please, what the ordinary is supposed to illuminate."
This is the key thing about We Are Pirates that I think some initial negative Goodreads reviews are missing. By being strange, We Are Pirates illuminates the ordinary. We don’t need a story about pirates to understand the relationship between an angst-ridden teenage girl and her frustrating parents, but doesn’t that make it so much more fun? Doesn’t it cast the usual family dynamic in a new, exciting light? Doesn’t it teach us, after everything, that perhaps we all have a little bit of the pirate spirit in us? I say “verily.”
There is currently no other book like this one on the market. It has all the intrigue of an old-fashioned pirating tale without being antiquated, the reality of the family life without being supremely dull, the childlike pursuit of adventure without being a kids’ book, and the darkness of a historical drama without being some throwaway thriller. For skeptical Snicket fans—you’re right, it’s not A Series of Unfortunate Events—but I assert that it is so, so much better.
OVERALL RATING: 5/5 Stars
TL;DR: I refuse to write one for this book. I love Daniel Handler. Read my review. Read his book.