This was underwhelming. Not only has this book been hailed as Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys, it has also received ridiculous amounts of press during the last months. Even people like Neil Gaiman aren’t immune to being overhyped. I consider myself a fan of his work, but despite his fame and renown, I am still aware that even a great author can sometimes produce a mediocre novel.
Published by: William Morrow, 2013
Hardcover: 181 pages
My rating: 6/10
First sentence: It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm.
Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
When our nameless protagonist and narrator first returns to the pond behind his childhood friend’s house, we are first forced to learn about his incredibly boring, mediocre life. I was worried that the entire book would continue along those lines but, thank Neil, the narrator slowly startes to remember certain evens that occured when he was seven years old and had just met the girl named Lettie Hempstock. It was around the time his cat got run over by a man who was later found dead near Lettie’s house… Once we read the childhood memories and the strange things that happened to the protagonist as a boy, the story starts to kick off. The monsters were suitable scary and wonderfully strange. In Ursula, Neil has created a truly terrifying thing that manipulates its way into the family and leaves the protagonist almost completely helpless, at her mercy. It was these moments that were the strongest and most adult ones in the book and the author does a fantastic job of capturing that feeling only a child can know, that feeling of knowing you are right and equally knowing that nobody will believe you. When he seems to be trapped in Ursula’s powers, he can only watch her take over his family more and more.
Not every book that features a child protagonist is automatically a children’s book. But this is sold as an adult novel and it just isn’t. I would consider neither the tone, themes, language, nor even the scary bits particularly adult in nature. It is not as creepy as Coraline, not nearly as deep and moving as The Graveyard Book, and the one thing that I kept coming back to was that it read more like a stretched-out short story. In the acknoweldgements, Neil Gaiman admits that it started out as just that – if I had any say in it, it would have remained a short story. Because the plot is very, very thin, the story straight-forward and simple. Bad comes into the world and has to be kicked out again somehow. And then there’s (what I’m guessing is supposed to be) a twist at the end that reminded me very much of Coraline.
And that’s another thing. I am so sad that, at least in this book, Neil Gaiman has nothing new to show us. Every little thing that I considered good and interesting about this story, has been there before in one of Neil’s other books – and usually done better. The hunger birds, the mysterious people who seem to use magic but don’t bother explaining themselves. The protagonist who is incredibly gullible and just does what he is told. Even the name Hempstock (maybe even the family) has appeared in The Graveyard Book. It would have been nice to get at least one shiny, new Neil Gaiman thing – that’s what I had been looking forward to.
To be fair, there is a budding exploration of certain themes, such as the importance of money to humans, that would have been intriguing to follow. But these themes are merely scratched at and then dropped completely. The other theme would probably be the protagonist’s coming-of-age but I would also dispute that he does. He is a strange character, one that gets fleshed out and becomes three-dimensional in the quieter chapters, when he thinks about books and his kitten – only to lose all personality as soon as other characters show up. From convincing little boy to cardboard stand-in.
There were a few things I liked about the book, most of all the abovementioned Ursula-the-housekeeper, who could have sprung straight from a nightmare. But also little paragraphs, here or there, where Neil managed to uncover a truth about the world and touch me with his writing, like this comparison between adults and children.
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 rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.
And, of course, I have to be honest and admit that – had this been my first Gaiman novel – I would have been quite impressed with the weird nature of his monsters. They are never just giant spiders or ghosts under the bed. They are strange and old and have agendas of their own. Whenever the monsters took center stage, I was all in, I sucked up the words and was terrified at how lightly the protagonist took some of the mysterious things happening to him. That worm-thingy, and Ursula, did their job well and creeped me out in an enjoyable this-is-only-a-story-worms-can’t-really-do-that-can-they way.
In the end, I am left disappointed, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed certain chapters of this little book very much. I have a suspicion that those were the chapters that made up the original short story…
THE GOOD: Great monsters, creepy scenes, the occasional beautiful line.
THE BAD: A rehash of old ideas, a plot that felt forcibly spread out, a strange sometimes-real, sometimes-bland protagonist.
THE VERDICT: If you’re a fan of Neil’s work, you will read this anyway. If you’ve never read anything by him, you may like it a lot more than I did (not knowing that all the ideas have been used in his prior novels already). And if you’re looking for a quick read, pick this up, sure, why not? If it hadn’t been so short, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.
RATING: 6/10 – Okay