Image © Neil Gaiman.
I read this shortly after it came out, on my iPad. It always feels a bit odd writing a review of an e-book, I don’t have that physical copy to page through and jog my memory, but in any case, you can easily guess that I liked this book, as I’ve liked all of Neil’s writing.
The framework of this novel feels more personal than many of Neil’s books. It’s begun by the narration of an adult author returning to his childhood home, a side-trip from a funeral he’s meant to attend. The old homestead begins to bring back all kinds of unexpected memories, and the narrator is soon prompted by them to drive further, to the end of the lane where he once lived, to visit the old farmhouse where the Hempstock family had dwelled when he was a child. It seems unchanged, and on entering, one of the family’s women is there still, and she remembers him. Before long, this visit in the present becomes a story about things that happened in the past. Odd things. Scary things. Wonderful things.
I think the kind of magic that Neil has conjured up in this novel comes partly from his imagination and partly from his own childhood memories. The former is not new for Neil, but the latter might be, at least in this amount. I’d call it Remembered Magic. We all have some, if we think about it hard enough. Things that happened to us when we were young enough that the boundaries between reality and imagination were blurred. Things that, to our adult minds, seem impossible or some kind of false memory, but still vividly recalled. It’s the kind of magic I think one can find in the work of the very best fantasy authors, ones who have not entirely left their own childhoods behind.
There’s a frightening character who dominates the center part of the book, reminding me some of The Other Mother in “Coraline,” and she drives the story and provides the chills, but what spoke to me more deeply was the Hempstock family, especially young Lettie, the narrator’s friend, who wields magic as casually as she might shake spiders out of an old jar, as do the rest of her family. Yet, their magic comes with a high price, as it always does in the best books, and that feels real too. As real as all the horrible things that can happen to one in childhood, when one is not in charge of much at all.
A wonderful book, highly recommended. I still feel “Stardust” is my favorite Gaiman novel, but this one is close behind.