We Are Pirates

Daniel Handler

Bloomsbury Circus

ISBN: 978 1 4088 2145 9


“We are pirates. It’s an American Story, really, with an outlaw spirit.”

Says Phil Needle, one of the main protagonist’s in Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler’s new bestselling treasure, “We Are Pirates.”


I was transfixed by the line work on this sort of dank, dark blue cover. I was reminded of Enid Blyton books, in particular one I owned as a young kid and was particularly fond of – “Five on a Treasure Island.” The simple black and white illustrations in that book started racing through my mind and I wondered, is this Daniel Handler book going to be anything like that? Is there going to be voracious, gluttonous waves and broken down ships and a sense of restless, child-like adventurous spirit? As it happens, there definitely WAS all that –but not in the way you would think. No, “We Are Pirates” is a much darker take on the traditional children’s lore of piracy and adventure – transgressing boundaries and wringing reality in unexpected and unforgettable ways.


Phil Needle’s an impressive guy. Really, he lives in this amazing shiny condo, high above the bustling noises and daily mess of the road below. He is also the proud owner of an especially “dynamic and re-inventive “radio business. He may have a difficult and restless spirit in his fourteen year old daughter that he neglects to manage and an estranged relationship with his wife - but that doesn’t matter because he’s Phil Needle.  He owns a radio business, he lives in a condo – and has a “smart, energetic, quality-minded” woman (who, more importantly, is especially sexy) - working for him. For Phil Needle, radio is empowering, emboldening. A massive presence, spread through broadcasting.  Communicating. Influencing. It’s big, and it’s important. And that’s all that matters.


But in reality, Phil Needle’s “dynamic, re-inventive company with limitless possibilities” day-to-day tasks involve recording audio diaries, feebly pitching to people half-baked ideas and masturbating – inspiring the addition of a “knock-first” policy. But if nothing else, he does effectively manage to turn a blind eye to that.


Phil Needle’s daughter Gwen Needle is angry, but she also embodies two different spirits. On one hand there is Gwen Needle, and on the other hand there is Octavia – fierce, pretty, tall, methodical and jealous of the ocean. Jealous of the ocean’s freedom, flexible schedule and “lapping cappuccino froth.” Gwen Needle is sick of life though, she’s mortified by dad and embarrassed by mum. She’s a dramatic little thief, out of step with the times. With messy hair and terrible breath she disregards the law and does as she pleases. She loves swimming, although her own world is as dense and murky and dank as a foggy and fish-ridden swamp. People simply exist to her as obstacles working against her braving laps. She’s cute as a cupcake, she fancies herself manipulative and crafty, but in reality (and for this novel, let’s not forget that reality is important) she’s unco-ordinated and clumsy. But for all her abrasiveness and skewed perspectives, Gwen’s character is delightfully endearing in her fragility, innocence and energy. One of my favourite parts of the book is when Octavia (Gwen’s alter-ego) undertakes a little shop-lifting project:


‘She remembered what it was called - shoplifting - and pictured lifting the whole place, the aisles tilting and tumbling their baubles and trinkety treasures into her pockets. Pink razors for her burnt leg and then a keychain she thought Naomi would like. And when she realized she could steal for other people, it was an avalanche, a chew bone for Toby the II, more stuff for Naomi, a stuffed bear and a tiny license plate that said Naomi. Three flasks of perfume, curvy and shapey like internal organs in her pockets, and she was done with Mother's Day for ages.’

Since reading this passage I’ve not thought of shoplifting in the same way again. Handler makes it sound like a sport; a game. Criminal undertones to this dark fantasy novel are exciting, and the whole thing sounds fun. But make no mistake, this is not a kid’s book, and piracy is not to be tried at home.

So then, about piracy. How does this all relate to the main underlying theme of the book? In a YouTube interview with the author Daniel Handler published on February 23 2015 by Bloomsbury, Handler illuminates “pirates embody the fantasy of escape. We long to be away from the world and we long to attack anybody who messes with us. The enemies in our head…Gwen is angry, furious at the world – as girls are, when they are fourteen or fifteen. She can’t wait to escape everything, go on a boat and commit acts of mayhem…. (But) she realises how terrifying it is to be away from the world. That to me is what piracy can teach us.”

It’s about ostracized members of society setting off on voyages, all on their own, in their “hemmed-in” realities.


In an interview with NPR in January (http://www.npr.org/2015/01/31/382851551/an-odd-crew-dreams-of-swashbuckl...) Handler also reflected on the impacts of unavoidable adversities in his own life – his father suffering from Alzheimer’s; a condition that influenced the “series of Unfortunate Events” taking place throughout the novel:

 “I thought it would be appropriate if the older man who becomes the head of a ragtag group of pirates (had Alzheimer's) because losing grip of reality would make it more believable that he might embark on such a voyage…

…The theme of the book, in effect, is that while we all want to escape from the world, it turns out that there is no escape from the world. You're still attached to the culture that you're in. And if you step outside the bounds of the law, you'll soon regret it.”


“We Are Pirates” forces us to confront those adult, difficult things. It’s a story about fragile family ties. It’s a story about transgressing boundaries. It’s a novel about the boundlessness of our own imagination, misplaced focus, misguided hope and what can happen if we turn a blind eye to what is most important in our lives.