This is a book like no other I have read in that it taps into something wonderful, dark and primal and managed to transport me back to both the magic and terror of childhood, a time of possibilities and when dreams and nightmares really did come true.
Finding himself back at his childhood home after attending a funeral, a middle-aged man (who is never named) recalls events that happened during his childhood – how the peace and joy of his life on the farmstead was shattered when a visitor to his house commits suicide in the family car. This act releases a darkness that threatens the young boy and his family, a darkness that his mother, father and sister seem unable or unwilling to see let alone confront. Only the bravery and chthonic magic of the girl down the road, the amazing Lettie Hempstock, who has a pond that is an ocean in her backyard and all sorts of other wondrous things, and her mother and grandmother understand and have the wherewithal to aid the boy in what becomes a life and death struggle to defeat the all-consuming and seductive powers of the darkness
Like the man remembering his childhood, the reader is transported back to ours. As the boy battles his own and some very real demons, so too we revisit and vanquish (if we’re lucky!) those that haunted our youth. What I loved about this book (and Gaiman’s work overall) is that nothing is cliched or expected. Furthermore, it’s what’s not described, but in the spaces between the words, the absences on the page and into which the reader’s imagination slips (or tumbles), that so much happens. Gaiman respects the power of our imaginations to take the story into places other writers would not dare. Thus, we fill in the gaps and the powerful but ofttimes partial descriptions with our own menacing ones. This makes the book at once eerie, wild and disturbing. Sometimes, the words and scenes howled through my mind, making we shiver and look over my shoulder. Other times, I felt warmed by its magical embrace and found great comfort – as if a warm blanket had been flung over my shoulders and a cup of something warm, sweet and strong had been placed in my hands.
There is something restorative and meaningful in peeling back the layers, in being reminded of the power of stories, of imagination, of being anchored once more to a time that while a part of us all, rarely gets dusted off and re-examined, though our childhood is what shapes us. We tend to relegate it to the attic of our minds. Stories like Gaiman’s reinstate childhood and the terrifying and wondrous interpretations children use to negotiate reality in all its great and scary glory.
Finishing the book is like awakening from a dream and I couldn’t help but grieve as I felt that the funeral the man was attending wasn’t only for a lost beloved, but a lost self. That we outgrow (or choose to ignore) the capacity to see and relate to the world through the eyes of our childhood selves is surely something that deserves mourning.
Astonishing modern fable that vividly recaptures the beauty and dread of dreams and childhood imaginings.