The Invention of Hugo Cabret


Michael Selznick




Date Reviewed:

May 9, 2009

he Invention of Hugo Cabret is a real page turner. Literally. When I picked this book up at the library, I found it to be almost two inches thick. It is almost 600 pages long, but most of those pages contain a single pencil drawing. The pages that do contain prose never hold more than a single paragraph of text. I am not sure why the text is so spread out, perhaps Selznick just wants you to keep turning pages.

The pictures and prose tell the story of young Hugo, who lives alone in the train station, maintaining the clock like his father taught him. When he isn't fixing the clocks, Hugo works on rebuilding a mechanical man that his father had been repairing before he died in a fire. Hugo doesn't know what the mechanical man will do when it is fixed, but he diligently works at fixing it. However, Hugo needs parts, and he has no money. So Hugo steals from the toy shop in the train station

The drawings in the book are all done with pencil. It reminded me of Shaun Tan's wordless The Arrival, though I liked the art in The Arrival better than Hugo because it was so creative. If you are looking for a true masterpiece of a great story and superb art, you must try reading Jeff Smith's Bone - it is wonderful tale with beautiful drawings.

I think Selznick is trying to make his story appealing to young readers by having the orphan Hugo living on his own in the vast train station, sort of like the kids who live in the museum in the classic book From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankenweiler. Wow, Hugo doesn't have to go to school! Hugo can do whatever he wants. But Selznick is pretty sparse on the details - how does Hugo wash himself or his clothes, isn't Hugo lonely not having any friends? We read that Hugo might steal a croissant for breakfast, but it is awful hard to survive for months on pilfered buns.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is clearly a labor of love. Selznick must have spent hours making each drawing, which the reader will scan for a few seconds before turning the page. Despite all the effort put into the creation of the book, I wish Selznick had put more thought into the story. There are an awful lot of convenient occurences. Need the key to start the mechanical man? Here it is! Need an acquaintance to get you into the library? There he is! Need some one to read aloud a newspaper headline so Hugo can learn of his Uncle's death? No problem! We never get an explanation why Hugo's dead was working so hard to repair the mechanical man - why did it mean so much to him? Despite the title of this book, Hugo Cabret doesn't invent anything, he just has a knack for fixing things.

At one point in the story, Selznick adds a gratuitous chase scene. A shop owner points to Hugo and says: "Hey, you're the boy who has been stealing the croissants!" Naturally, the Stationmaster is nearby, and he chases Hugo with the relentless determination of the Terminator. Is Selznick paying some kind of homage to Victor Hugo's Les Miserables here? After all, the story Hugo Cabret takes place in Paris. Is Hugo named for Victor Hugo? In Les Miserables, the ruthless policeman Javert pursues Jean Valjean endlessly for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread. In Hugo Cabret, the Stationmaster chases Hugo for stealing a croissant.