It starts with a shadow.
The lightless counterpoint to a living thing, an echo, or perhaps a void. Wendy Darling’s story as we know it typically begins here: a boy, and his shadow. And it does again within Aiden Thomas’ Lost in the Never Woods—except it really begins several years earlier, with a very different sort of darkness.
It’s been five years since Wendy, John, and Michael went missing. Wendy reappeared months later without her brothers, and with no recollection of what happened. While Wendy copes with the trauma of losing her brothers and her memories, her parents are also wracked with the grief and torment of not knowing what happened to their sons. Forced to grow up before she’s ready, Wendy’s eighteen now, and focused on preparing for nursing school so she can continue to take care of herself and her parents. She secretly dreams of becoming a pediatrician, but how could anyone trust her with their children? She couldn’t protect her own brothers. She doesn’t even know what happened to them.
When the Darling children were little, their mother used to tell them fantastical stories of a magical boy named Peter Pan and his wild adventures. When they got older, Wendy became the storyteller, and she began inventing Peter stories on her own.
The last thing she expects is for a boy calling himself Peter Pan to fall out of the sky—especially not now, and she certainly doesn’t expect him to be so charming, or strange, with starlight dancing in his eyes and a secret hidden deep within them. But more and more children are disappearing in Wendy’s town, and she’ll have to work with the boy from her stories in order to save them. Even if it means confronting the most painful shadows in Wendy’s past.
J. M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan story is arguably foundational despite its many issues, especially its racist indigenous depictions. It’s full of adventure and action, but at its core, it’s also a narrative of innocence lost, of the inevitable dissolution of childhood dreams. Peter is an emblem of eternal youth, for all the complexity that entails. He’s witty, joyous and playful, first to lead onto an adventure, and desperately, ferociously loving, despite the natural fickleness of his heart. He’d rather pretend to eat than learn to cook, even if it means his companions half-starve. Forgetful to a fault, ambitious to the point of cockiness, he quite literally would sooner die than grow up. He’s a fascinating character, dark and strange and ripe for interpretation, and I grew up genuinely adoring his story.
Lost in the Never Woods will appeal to fans of the original story, especially as it wholly leaves behind Barrie’s racism. In addition to the characters and larger themes, there are fun little nods to details from Barrie’s novel—though you certainly don’t need to have any familiarity with it to appreciate Thomas’ work. His debut novel Cemetery Boys is one of my favorites of all time, so altogether, Lost in the Never Woods seemed like the perfect read for me.
It is, but more viciously aptly than I anticipated. The past year has been steeped in grief. Both for me personally, but also just as someone who has survived 2020, when so many others did not. When a version of myself did not. Wendy struggles with guilt and shame, with grief for the person she used to be, for the childhood that was wrenched from her, and that cuts terribly close. This book ached. Expect it to ache, it’s meant to. Dark and atmospheric, this novel has Wendy confront real monstrosity and violence, and Thomas doesn’t shy from the messy fallout of grief. No major spoilers, but he leans into a tragic, fitting interpretation of Peter’s character. In this Peter and his Neverland, youth is preserved as if in amber, somewhere half-safe and magic. Lost in the Never Woods branches from the Peter Pan origin to explore the rippling destruction of grief and trauma: how it can unmake a childhood, a person, a family. And conversely, how fairy stories full of possibility can give us hope and something to hold onto, guiding us through even the darkest forests of our lives.
In this way, Thomas’ novel invokes one of the most profound truths about storytelling and the need for escapism: sometimes, the purpose of fantasy is to survive reality. As so many of us buried ourselves in comfort stories and imaginative narratives to get through this year, this novel feels deeply compassionate and healing.
So much of Peter Pan’s story has always been about the fragile impermanence of youth, the strange, uncanny wonder of his eternal childhood. Here, Thomas interrogates these concepts. They work narrative weight into Peter’s tenuous liberty, the cyclicity of his story, the families left behind in his wake, and the terrifying prospect of a shadow that can set itself free. The real magic in this novel is in Thomas’s writing, which is sparkling and steady at once as it guides both Wendy and the reader toward the truth.
This is strongly plotted work, twisty and devastating, haunting and heartbreaking. The romance is, as we can expect from Thomas, tender and teasing in turn, and a delight to read. A powerful reimagining, Lost in the Never Woods is very different from Thomas’ first novel, but no less urgent, and imbued with just as much wit, heart, and hope.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.