Neil Gaiman’s newest book is packed with strange images that feel like they should have meaning. There’s a field of furry plants that turn out to be kittens. There’s a being who burrows into your feet as a worm in one world, only to become a seductress in this world. There’s a family of farm women who remember Cromwell’s time, and an ocean the size of a pond. The images are beautiful and terrifying, but as stunning as they are, they cannot drive out the terrors that come with the all-too-realistic behavior of the all-too-real people who populate the narrator’s memory of his seventh year.
The book’s middle-aged narrator has put the strange events of his seventh year in the past, but on coming back home for a funeral, he finds that he must return to the site of the house where he grew up, and then to travel past it to the house at the end of the lane, the Hempstock house, the one with an ocean the size of a pond behind it. He remembers becoming friends with Lettie Hempstock, a girl who appeared to be about 11 years old but who had knowledge beyond her years. He met Lettie on the day that the boarder living in his house committed suicide in the family’s white Mini. Soon after the suicide, strange things began happening, and only Lettie seemed able to guide the narrator through the danger that he never fully understood.
Many of the events in the book don’t make a lot of logical sense, but I don’t think they’re meant to. The fantastic creatures seem to operate by arbitrary rules don’t always get explained. They just are. But the fantasy world makes no less sense—and is no less frightening—than the adult world, especially when viewed from the perspective of a 7-year-old. Children are in the power of adults, and not all adults are looking out for the children’s best interest. The narrator knows this because he’s been a victim of the capricious rules of adults. But adults are no more capable than children of bringing rhyme and reason to the world. They may have power over children, but they don’t have power over their own worst selves, or over their own fears, as Lettie observes:
“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” …
We sat there, side by side, on the old wooden bench, not saying anything. I thought about adults. I wondered if that was true: if they were all really children wrapped in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long adult books, the kind with no pictures or conversations.
The narrator tells what feels at times like a children’s story, but there are many adult moments hidden within. (Parts of the book reminded me strongly of Coraline, although it is very much an adult’s book.) The story is filled with mystery, much like the myths the narrator loved as a boy:
I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.
Adult stories never made sense, and they were slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?
Gaiman immerses readers fully into the 7-year-old perspective, and that 7-year-old is made to deal with horrors that hardly bear thinking about. We see how, for this child, a myth might make more sense than the real world, where he is lonely, poor, and abused and where adults are cruel and neglectful. I wondered, in fact, if we’re meant to read the story of the Hempstocks as a false memory, as a story he made up to make sense a of world where adults behave so unpredictably. I’d have to read it in full again to see if that reading would track. The thing is, the memory feels true to the narrator, and it gives him a lens through which to view that horrible year when so much changed. It has an emotional truth, if not a literal one—and one wonders how relevant the literal truth is when the emotional truth gets it right.