I thought we’d start out with one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. In general I love every new Gaiman book more than the last and every old one more than the new. I love me some Gaiman, okay? One of the things I really like about him is his refusal to stick to one genre or age group. Gaiman had spent the last few years in the land of children’s stories and young adult works and this was sort of hailed as his big return to adult literature. Personally, I could not have cared less. I read everything by the man and enjoyed every second of it. The last book I’d read by Gaiman was The Graveyard Book, a children’s book in the way that perhaps Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a children’s book. Technically about and for readers under the age of eighteen but with subject matter that is far from Hop on Pop. But enough about my thoughts on that. (For now.) Onto the book at hand!
The book opens with the unnamed narrator back in his childhood hometown for a funeral. As we are all wont to do in times of mourning he finds himself seeking solace in the past. He takes a drive toward his own home and, upon seeing the red brick farmhouse at the bottom of the lane, begins to remember the Hempstock women and a little girl named Lettie. He stops at the house and asks about Lettie. When Mrs. Hempstock offers him tea he instead decides he’d like to see the duck pond first. The small duck pond that Lettie had called an ocean. Upon seeing Lettie’s ocean he starts to remember.
One of the things I find quite interesting about this novel is the choice to have the majority of the story take place in the past, with a child narrator. It’s not a common choice for adult fiction but it works so well in this case. The more fantastical elements need a child’s sense of wonder and belief. But don’t allow the age of the narrator to lull you into a sense of ease. This is Gaiman, after all. While the narrator may be seven the story deals with some very frightening ideas and images. Gaiman is a master of atmosphere and, let’s be completely honest, creepiness.
There’s very little outright horror in this story, the Varmints being the exception there. But Gaiman’s description of the wormhole in the narrator’s foot will leave you squirming and possibly choking back bile. (I personally almost put the book down this part messed with me so much, and I mean that as a compliment.) The interactions between Ursula and the the narrator, the isolation she forces him into, speak to very deep fears within all of us. Others have said this story plays upon childhood fears, and while it certainly does I feel I should clarify that it doesn’t only play upon childhood fears. Parts of this novel will absolutely rock you as an adult.
I may not be entirely subjective when it comes to Gaiman. As stated I love everything I’ve read by him. I will echo what others have said in that it is like nostalgia come to life. Isn’t this how we all remember our childhoods? Full of mythical beings and danger? Perhaps we never had a neighbor as old as time itself, or legendary demons attempting to eat the world around us. But we had special places that transformed with our imaginations. We got ourselves into situations that were far more dangerous than we realized. And we understood that to believe something was to make it real, a theme that shows up in a lot of Gaiman’s work.
It is difficult to analyze this book because to simply discuss plot device and writing technique is to do it a great disservice. This is a book that must be felt. Yes, it’s shelved in the Sci Fi & Fantasy section of the bookstore. But it’s the kind of fantasy even non-genre readers will appreciate. I urge anyone looking for a new read to try this. For such a fantastical and unique story it is remarkably universal in tone and theme. This is a book that stays with you for days after putting it down. But a book like this is not really meant for review. It is an experience.