We are Pirates by Daniel Handler - book review: Mr Lemony Snicket sets sail for new, adult waters

A pirate adventure for grown-ups set in modern-day San Francisco

Daniel Handler is best known for being the mind behind Lemony Snicket, the author of the menacing and much-admired 13-volume A Series of Unfortunate Events, a veritable treasure trove of children’s fiction.

However, fast rivalling his nom de plume, his real name marks out several voyages into the more treacherous waters of adult fiction. The latest and greatest of these, like his children’s writing, sails against readerly expectation to brilliant effect.

Gloriously cut loose from much in the contemporary book market, We Are Pirates is a pirate adventure for grown-ups set in modern-day San Francisco, Handler’s home city. It is a swashbuckling and wonderfully eccentric message in a bottle for those seeking a social order beyond the realm of traditional authority.

Handler hauls together a motley crew. His protagonist, 14-year-old Gwen, is strikingly imagined. Stifled and neglected by her parents, who want her to be independent and make friends but won’t let her get the bus or go swimming on her own, she is a colourful portrait of teenage angst who convincingly oscillates between insecure lust, violent rage and a semi-naive longing for something beyond the confines of her family’s expensive condo.

Drawn with equal intensity, Gwen’s fellow corsair and “captain” is Errol, a socially marooned geriatric with Alzheimer’s. By turns hilarious and haunting, the remarkable alliance between Gwen and Errol is one of Handler’s most rewarding insights. Along with a couple of awkward teens led by Gwen, this piratical assemblage is completed by Manny, an orderly from Errol’s nursing home.

Manny, who is consistently introduced as Jamaican despite his attempts to remind people that he is from Haiti, provides another example of societal ostracism. As with the different kinds of ageism surrounding Gwen and Errol, Handler manages Manny’s racial isolation with commendable self-consciousness, acknowledging the complicity of the book itself in perpetuating such failures of cohesion: “Just about everybody else, by the way”, the narrator interjects, “in this book is white.”

Handler’s yarn, replete with as many twists and turns as the classic pirate stories, captivates from start to finish, but it is his stylistic exploration of the piratical yen for elsewhere which most cleverly shanghais the imagination. His playfulness with language is as revitalising as any buccaneering quest: waves wave, dead men really don’t tell tales, and a stone’s throw away must be literalised by the throw of a stone.

Conventional use of idiom walks the plank. When Gwen is told she has to work in an old people’s home, she asks for how long: “How about five weeks?” replies her mother, “That’s a nice even number”. Later, because Gwen’s father knows a conversation he is having “like the back of his hand”, he is prompted to look there, where he notices some smudged ink which instigates further unexpected thought-processes. This marauding approach to forgotten linguistic treasures distinguishes Handler as a gifted stylist as well as an original story-teller.

Like the adventure he narrates, it reminds us that while we can never truly navigate away from the map, we can still try to forge an exciting and hospitable space on it.

Bloomsbury £10.99