A very common theme for science fiction and fantasy stories is that things are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. This shows up everywhere from the Pevensies’ wardrobe to the Tardis, and it is, of course, because it speaks truth: human beings are also bigger inside than they are outside. All our consciousness and imagination, all our love and fear and relationship and art, comes from inside. So when Neil Gaiman’s unnamed middle-aged narrator tells us the story of his awful seventh year, when he met unspeakable danger in the shape of his family’s nanny, and found help he couldn’t have imagined in the form of an eleven-year-old girl, and saw an ocean the size of a duckpond — bigger inside than outside, all of this — we are at once on ground utterly strange and comfortingly familiar.
The supernatural events in the story are kicked off by the suicide of the lodger at the narrator’s house. The death wakes a being who at first wants to “help” people by giving them money (since she has quickly detected that money makes people happy in this world — right?), but this soon devolves into harm and madness. This theme of money is something I haven’t often seen in modern fantasy. It is, of course, an extremely common theme in fairy tales: pots of gold, silver and copper guarded by dogs with spinning eyes; a broken branch of diamond with silver leaves; a dwarf who can spin straw into gold; jewels and coins coming out of a girl’s mouth. Why don’t our modern fantasies dwell on it more, given our culture? Gaiman does it perfectly, as you might expect.
The enemy quickly escalates her attack on the narrator, and Gaiman lets the reader really understand the total vulnerability of a seven-year-old: you can’t get away, you have no power, no money, and no credibility. When even your parents are against you — and his are turned against him — there is no safe place left. But Gaiman gives the narrator a haven and some unexpected help in the form of the Hempstocks, three women (or are there in fact three of them?) who run the farm at the end of the lane. These women have been on this piece of property for a long time — we are allowed to consider the possibility that they have been there forever — and their duckpond is in fact an ocean. There is strength here, and a willingness to sacrifice.
I should mention here that one of the loveliest things Gaiman does in this book in order to delineate the discomfort and fear of home from the safe space of the Hempstocks’ is to talk about food. At home, he gets burned toast, when he isn’t being sent to his room without supper. At the Hempstocks':
“We have breakfast here early,” she said. “Milking starts at first light. But there’s porridge in the saucepan, and jam to put in it.”
She gave me a china bowl filled with porridge from the stovetop, with a lump of homemade blackberry jam, my favorite, in the middle of the porridge, then she poured cream on it. I swished it around with my spoon before I ate it, swirling it into a purple mess, and was as happy as I have ever been about anything. It tasted perfect.
Gaiman is thinking a lot about what makes us into ourselves in this book. Is it memory? Is it being willing to do something for another person? Is it integrity? When the narrator’s father, seduced by the villain, loses his memory of his family and betrays his son with abuse, he has lost himself completely. Yet the narrator also loses his memory, and that’s what helps him heal as he gets older: Old Mrs. Hempstock declares that he’s growing a new heart. (This reminded me of Kay in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” The narrator, too, has had a fatal sliver of ice in his heart, and has needed a woman’s sacrifice to melt it.)
This is a wonderful book. I’ll admit that I had a strong reaction to it: children in trouble bring that out in me, and Gaiman doesn’t spare us. But he lets us see the strong places, too, and the love, and the comfort, whenever there is any, and the eventual possibility of healing. I’d say this book — like all true art — is bigger on the inside than on the outside.