Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
This is a tough book to review because of how hard it is to describe a Neil Gaiman book of this level of lyricism. I’ve read other books by Gaiman, including Anasi boys and Neverwhere, but this is really the first time with a text book where I’ve really been enamoured with the text and the story telling.
Some reviewers have felt short changed and let down that this return to “adult” fiction book is “simplistic” and short. It is a short-ish story, the core story covering a few days, and written in the voice and perspective of a 7 year old boy confronting a wide world with scary and powerful people with the limited world view of someone his age. This could easily be read those children who are happy with the more scary aspects of this book. However, really, this is an adult’s book because of the initial short, bloodless post-suicide scenes, plus one short scene involving the father and “au pair” (that most kids probably wont understand anyway).
The au pair and “the cleaners” are rightfully scary, and even as a middle aged man, his relationship with Lettie Hempstock and her family is still rightly gentle, an almost love affair of a young boy and a seemingly slightly older girl (who has been 11 for a Very Long Time). There’s a marked difference between the Narrator’s home – where he escapes into reading books, feels lonely even when sharing a room with his sister, and doesnt eat for several days for fear of what the Au Pair is trying to do to him – and that of the Hempstock’s house, where he gets clean clothes, hot baths, and plenty of delicious food at the large kitchen table. The mother is almost never at home and the father is enchanted with the new girl in the house and so only pays attention long enough to shout at his children.
In writing this review, I struggled to remember the narrator’s name, and in looking at other reviews have realised that this was not a fault on my part – Gaiman manages to produce a whole book that succeeds without once giving a name to the central character.