Author: Neil Gaiman
Publication Date: 2013
LC Call Number: PR6057.A319
Most of the books I read have been published for a long time, so I seldom get to look forward to a book’s debut. This is too bad, actually, because I love to anticipate something I feel confident I’ll enjoy. This book was one I did look forward to seeing; in fact, I went so far as to attend a reading and book signing. So, it’s a good thing that the book turned out to be as beautiful and as satisfying as it was, because otherwise I would have been quite deeply disappointed.
It’s a real departure from Gaiman’s other work. It reminded me more of his short stories than any of his novels,* and it took me a while to understand why. The answer is, at least partially: it’s in first person. His other novels are all seen specifically from the point of view of a particular character, but not in first person, whereas some of the short stories are told as first-person anecdotes that almost sound as if they are meant to be about his life, but a reader may be skeptical. TOatEotL works in a very similar way. To say that it’s a memoir is certainly stretching it; it’s a fantasy novel, but it’s about the childhood of a character who is illustrated by a photograph of Gaiman himself (with the head removed), who lives in a specific landscape that the author assures us is very close to the one that in which he grew up. It also deals with fantasy in a slightly different way than most of his other work. Most of his books work on the notion that there is a fantastic world or fantastic beings that exist alongside everyday life, just out of sight. This book does that to some extent—there’s a family that lives nearby that has access to things outside of the mundane—but in fact, if you didn’t already know Gaiman as a fantasist, you might be tempted to think of this book as magical realism. The entire story is the memory of a man who was an imaginative child; he’s not an unreliable narrator but there is a certain level of intentional difficulty to believing the story, especially as a plausible alternate explanation is very clear to an adult reader. Still, the plausible explanation never quite attains the same status as the fantasy story; that’s the one that, as a reader, you believe.
The story, and here I am attempting to avoid too many spoilers, goes like this: a man returns home for his father’s funeral and goes to visit a farm where a girl once lived who was his friend. He remembers an episode from his childhood which he was unable to remember previously, beginning with the most mundane details and somehow slowly moving into a story about the invasion into his world of a creature which has the ability to estrange him from his family. His allies are the aforementioned girl, her mother and her grandmother (the Hempstocks). There is a great deal more to the plot, but let’s leave it at that for now.
Somewhat surprisingly for a story about a childhood memory, the book is characterized by an abundance of vivid sensory details. Early in the book, these seem to alternate between the pleasurable and the horrifying. There is a great deal in the book about food, especially the Hempstocks’ food, which is almost magical in its ability to provide comfort and relief to ordinary people, which the Hempstocks are definitely not. At the same time, the terrifying moments are equally visceral or maybe a little more so. It’s not a horror story, but there are three particular points at which it creates that kind of physical response. The intensity of the descriptions makes the book itself more intense; it feels like a very specific childhood but also kind of yours.
And on the other hand, it’s also about childhood itself. It’s about the loneliness of childhood, about being a child who loves books, and the ability to have such vivid experiences and not necessarily think it is odd. Perhaps most noticeably, though, a lot of it is about the powerlessness of childhood; by the time that he writes:
Ursula Monkton was an adult. It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win. (87)
… it’s almost unnecessary to say so, because we’ve already seen how little power the seven-year-old narrator has in the world of adults. For children not to be believed about their experiences is a common theme of fantasy stories, but here it goes further: every aspect of his life can be controlled by adults. He cannot leave his house or be part of his family without permission, and in fact, he is subject to physical punishment that makes him fear for his life. Ursula Monkton is an interloper and she is responsible for many of the things that happen to him, but his powerless does not come from her malice. His father is part of it, but there’s also, early in the book, a reference to the waxwork Chamber of Horrors, which illustrates intra-family murders. It’s very easy for the mundane to become sinister, and the protagonist is not able to do anything about this.
I love the pace of the book, which is episodic in a very Gaiman-esque way. I’ve alluded before to a sequence of pleasant and terrifying experiences; the intervals between them become shorter as the book goes on, but it is interesting how something terrifying will happen , followed by a lull wherein the story sort of gathers itself, and then back into the action. Strange as everything is that happens here, it’s even stranger when it’s integrated into these moments of normalcy, and in a way that adds to the feeling that this is a memory, because all of this comes to him along with details about how things were at the time.
And then, of course, the characters. As a reader, you have a great deal of insight into the protagonist; all his thoughts and fears are on display. Other characters are more opaque, because they are opaque to him. What was really striking to me was how much two specific characters reminded me of characters from elsewhere. Ursula Monkton reminded me of Geraldine from Coleridge’s poem “Christabel,” to such an extent that I have to wonder whether this is one source for the novel. In any case, it is certainly affecting my ideas of what I think Geraldine is. I wonder if I’m the only one who thinks so. And Lettie Hempstock, well, she’s a homebody who draws her power from owning land, so that’s certainly a difference, but in all other respects she reminds me of The Doctor. Feel free to argue if you like.
I read the print version, because I’m not an audiobook person, but I heard him read some of it and also listened to an audio preview online, and it’s amazing, so if you’re an audiobook person, this one may be a good choice. A lot of the beauty comes from the language, which I’m not going to attempt to describe except to say that I tried to read it slowly, and remembering what it had sounded like being read helped with that–but it’s worth reading slowly and enjoying the sentences.
Also—I may do another post about the ending. It was quite haunting and lovely in some ways , and then in other ways it draws on a trope that’s been often criticized, but then, I’m not sure it really is that. So I might write about that, but for now, let’s not get any more spoilery than this already is.
*For reference, I have read: Smoke and Mirrors, American Gods, Good Omens, Stardust, Neverwhere, Coraline, Fragile Things, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, Volumes 1-6 of The Sandman, which isn’t everything, but I think that’s all the novels and a few other things, anyway.