I have seen a lot of contemptuous reviews of Gaiman’s books, by reviewers I respect. What is so great about them? They ask. All of them are simplistic stories using the same motifs again and again – trite fantasies about little children up against mythical monsters. Enjoyable, sure, enough to while away a holiday afternoon, maybe… But great? Come on guys, aren’t you exaggerating a bit?
As a fan of Gaiman’s prose, there was a time I would have been furious with them. How can you not see the poetry of language? I would have asked. How can you not see the richness of the imagination? How can you not sense the profoundness of what Gaiman is saying? But not anymore – because now I understand that it is a fundamental difference of perception: one you can’t explain or substantiate, like the taste of a particular curry one loves and another hates.
The unnamed narrator of this novel says:
…the patterns in the headboard of the bed at my grandmother’s house, which, if I looked at them wrongly in the moonlight, showed me an old man with his mouth open wide, as if he were screaming.
I know what he means, oh yes: I similarly saw the face of an old hag in a dead leaf when I was two or three (reading this passage jogged my memory, and I suddenly recalled this long-forgotten terrifying incident), and had a very difficult time explaining it to my parents (they still don’t know).
It is a fact: only some can see with the eyes of a child.
The country of childhood is a strange and exhilarating and (yes!) frightening place.
Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath the rhododendrons, to find the spaces between the fences.
It is on this path, off the beaten track, that Gaiman takes you in this novel (as in many others), as you accompany the seven-year-old protagonist on a frightening and exhilarating journey to the end of the lane, where three generations of female Hempstocks (who are perhaps older than time itself) live in their farmhouse – a farmhouse which also houses a duck-pond which is really an ocean. You watch with bated breath as he battles an evil out of time which appears in the guise of an ordinary governess, and pray for him as the hunger birds descend upon him ravenously. Of course, you do this if you can enjoy the story for what it is, without trying to find the meanings hidden between the words.
I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.
As a shy and socially backward youngster, I found refuge in books at a very early age. As I grew up, the stories changed, but a bit of the boy who lost himself between the pages of a novel stayed.
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 books. The kind with no pictures or conversations.
I do not know about all adults, but I definitely fit the bill. If you think you do too, please take some time to visit the ocean at the end of the lane.
I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.