by: Neil Gaiman
Harper/Collins New York, NY 2013
The latest novel from Neil Gaiman continues the theme of searching for identity common to MirrorMask, American Gods and many of his other works. It has the same mythic scope and the ability to make us question the boundaries of our own reality.
The story is told in the first person and is written almost as a memoir. The main character and narrator is back in his childhood haunting grounds “escaping” from a funeral. He wanders back to an old friend’s farm and sits by the small pond she called her ocean. The body of the story unfolds as he remembers back to his seventh year.
I was charmed by this book, even in its darker moments. I too had a childhood landscape that was marked by pathways leading to “other” places and objects that appeared different than what I knew them to be. The child in this story is led through the landscape by his new friend Lettie, who is eleven to his seven. Lettie lives on the farm with her mother and grandmother where they have lived forever. The farm is listed in the Domesday Book and occasionally Lettie makes a comment that leads the reader to wonder if forever isn’t literally descriptive.
Unlike American Gods, the mythology Gaiman draws upon isn’t laid out in neat pieces. Unlike Mirror Mask it isn’t hidden away in the magic and mirrors of carnival entertainment. These are the figures of the land and if you know the land, you know the stories. Otherwise they are just those folks who’ve always been there, forever. The things that become so familiar no one but the children ever look twice.
When we return in the tale to the day of the funeral the memories that have been reclaimed stay with our narrator, at least for a moment. He recognizes the woman who greeted him, not as Lettie’s mother aged but rather as the Grandmother just as she always was. He wonders if, when Lettie comes back to the farm, she will still be eleven. It’s the question he asked her as a seven year old, not just how old was she but “How long have you been eleven?”
The dedication to this book is to Gaimen’s wife and performing artist Amanda Palmer. The implication is that he wrote the book because she wanted to know something about his childhood. Indeed Gaiman drew heavily on his childhood home and the country where he grew up. He leave us to wonder how much of the mythic was a part of his childhood as well. Especially since the main character is left with a scare where his heart was touched by the “other world” that would never quite heal over.
This too is mythic. Those who wander into the realm of Fairy and who survive to find their way out often spend the rest of their lives searching for a means by which to return. For Gaiman, clearly his means is in his writing. Thankfully he seems willing to take some of the rest of us with him as he goes.