There is magic in this novel, in Mr. Gaiman’s economic, lilting prose ordered as carefully as a spell, pinning down quicksilver memories, not all of them welcome. His adult protagonist returns to the farm at the end of the lane where his friend, Lettie Hempstock, lived with her mother and grandmother (Lettie Hempstock who had been eleven for a very long time), to the bench by the duck pond that is really an ocean, and remembers a series of fantastic events that started after the “bad birthday” when he turned seven. Gaiman inhabits his seven-year-old psyche with admirable ease, relating the small joys and larger fears of childhood with a clarity so remarkable that it dragged me along for a ride down my own lane. It seems perfectly reasonable that the writer Neil Gaiman has become would begin with a house that possessed its own faery ring and was surrounded by roses and hazel thickets. And that the seven-year-old who lived there would be a voracious reader and become the center of an otherwise invisible struggle against the varmints and fleas loosed from the world in the Forever that the Hempstocks left behind when they came here, to this world, to play.
While reading this novel, I was reminded of a scene from the movie Hocus Pocus in which a witch flies on her broom over a sleeping New England town and, singing beautifully and irresistibly, lures the children from their beds. In the wake of Mr. Gaiman’s tidy discussions of huge emotions, we cannot help but be drawn down our own lanes to visit memories good and bad and all long forgotten. The pages of this book veer from microscope to telescope, zooming in on the smallest wriggling details and then opening into the bright flowering of the universe. Along the way, contradictions abound: there is no food and then there are satisfying quantities of the most savory, comforting food you can imagine; there is terror and a warm fire burning in the hearth; there are things that are worse than what they appear to be and others that are better than could be hoped for. It is the confusion and joy of childhood and the agony, from a child’s perspective, of watching it all change and having no say in the matter. Except. Except for a little help from the little girl at the end of lane. Every book is like a small ocean but this book is larger than most. Happy sailing.
Read more about this book and more of Neil Gaiman’s works in progress at his website.