“There was silence. The shadows seemed to have become part of the night once again. I thought over what I’d said, and I knew that it was true. At that moment, for once in my childhood, I was not scared of the dark, and I was perfectly willing to die (as willing as any seven-year-old, certain of his immortality, can be) if I died waiting for Lettie. Because she was my friend.”
I like a good book of 300+ pages that can sweep you into the story and never let go until the end. But sometimes short books do that, too, and that’s exactly what Neil Gaiman’s latest novel does. As an unnamed, middle-aged man reminisces on one year in his childhood, it transports the reader on a journey back to the realm of childhood.
When the narrator meets one of his neighbours, Lettie Hempstock, a girl wise beyond her years, they are transported into a strange land. Soon after one of their adventures, the narrator finds a worm, pink and grey, stuck in his foot (totally normal, that, of course), pulls it out, and thinks nothing more of it. Then, in a seemingly unrelated event, his parents get a nanny, Ursula Monkton, dressed in pink and grey, who has a suspicious way of worming herself into the family, quickly gaining the affections of the narrator’s sister and seducing his father. Could she be a manifestation of the worm? And how can the narrator send her away for good?
Gaiman has a magical writing style that draws the reader into the story. The disconnect between the supposed rationality of adulthood and the irrationality of childhood, where anything can be made into the true, is depicted wonderfully here. Even though this is a book about childhood, this isn’t a book for children — for one, a description of adultery and an attempted drowning is mentioned in detail, even if the child doesn’t know what is happening — but also in that a thorough read would require someone who isn’t seven to understand the bigger themes going on.
The one problem I had with the book (perhaps I just missed it) is that the narrator, who is remembering what happened when he was seven, is remembering it with the mind of a seven year old. That is, no judgement, no questioning on the fantastical events that he believes happened to him, until the end, when the narrator is in conversation with another character. The pretence of the narrator travelling back to his childhood home at the beginning and the end to attend the funeral of a person (whose identity remains unknown) serve as bookends which never felt quite resolved. Or maybe that’s the point; I don’t know. In all, it is a very well-written book worth a read.