This bewitching and harrowing tale of mystery and survival, and memory and magic, makes the impossible all too real...
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 where she once lived, 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.
Publisher: William Morrow (June 3, 2014)
Page Count: 181 pages
At this point, I've dabbled into Neil Gaiman quite a bit. I've seen Stardust and Coraline and I just recently read Norse Gods. Now I wanted to read one of his books that hasn't been adapted into a film and really dive into original Gaiman writing.
The Plot: One thing I've noticed about Gaiman from the two books of his that I've read is he's more of a storyteller. His writing involves a lot of telling like he's telling the story to you as opposed to the story being shown. It's an older style. His stories are also very quirky. They have a definite Gaiman signature to him. Coraline (my favorite of his works) and The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be in the same story world.
This story has a cohesive plot that carries you from beginning to end, but it has a bit of a mysterious ending like I almost wish there was more.
The Characters: The weird thing is you never know the name of the main character. He starts as a middle-aged man visiting his family home, but the majority of the book is told in his point of view from a first-person perspective as if he's recollecting his experiences as a seven-year-old. So it's this odd mix of a strong young boy POV with interjections from an adult. It takes a bit of getting used to. But he does have a defined personality as a little boy who loves books and kitties. Gaiman really captured the innocent mind of a small child and you sympathize for the boy from the beginning of his POV because of some terribly tragic events that almost made me quit reading, but I'm glad I pressed on.
The Hempstock family is very intriguing. There's so much about them you don't know about their mysterious world that they seem almost like shepherds over. I love their accented dialogue and their personalities that stick out among the other "ordinary" characters. Lettie is a strong girl. She's pretty darn epic but not in a kick-butt way but in her bravery, surety, and sacrifice. She's a strong light.
Ursula Monkton is a frightening, powerful, and creepy villain. I never thought rotten canvas could be freaky, but I was wrong. XD You can really feel the boy's terror as he encounters her and you feel just as a freaked out as this otherwordly monster taking the flesh of a woman terrorizes this child.
The Hunger Birds were freaky climactic villains. I mean birds that can tear apart the very fabric of the world? That's scary!
The Setting: The majority took place in the English countryside around the 60s I'm guessing. Then another part of the story takes place in this other world with manta wolfs, magic, and an orange sky or an ocean of endless knowledge and understanding. It's all very mysterious and unusual.
Epic Things: I loved how deeply Gaiman went into the POV of a child. There were so many quotes and observations that were like, "Man, that is so true." Like how many children are terrified of adults because they're big and powerful or things like this:
"Small children believe themselves to be gods, or some of them do, and they can only be satisfied when the rest of the world goes along with their way of seeing things."
Then there were other parts that made me laugh like:
"The previous house-keeper, Gertruda, six months earlier, had not been nice: she had enjoyed playing practical jokes on my sister and me. She would short-sheet the beds, for example, which left us baffled. Eventually, we had marched outside with placards saying "We hate Gertruda" and "We do not like Gertruda's cooking," and put tiny frogs in her bed, and she had gone back to Sweden."
The Theme: There many themes in this book. Lots of nuggets of deep wisdom.
"Nobody actually looks like what they are on the inside. You don't. I don't. People are much more complicated than that. It's true of everybody."
~ Lettie Hempstock
"Nothing's ever the same. Be it a second later or a hundred years. It's always churning and roiling. And people change as much as oceans."
~ Old Mrs. Hempstock
"That's the trouble with living things. Don't last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together ..."
~ Lettie Hempstock
Content Cautions: There's not a lot of content to worry about but there are some notable bits. A man is found dead in the backseat of a car, a kid nearly chokes on a coin, a man tries to drown his kid, mentioning digging out a wart (gross), a non-flesh monster is torn to pieces by other monsters, and there's a whole chapter dedicated to the boy digging a worm out of his own foot.
In the sexual department, a woman is mentioned to be fully naked though not described in detail and a married man is having an affair and it's shown him pushing a woman into a wall and putting his hand up her skirt. And then male parts are mentioned in English slang in a creepy way.
What We Can Take Away For Our Writing:
1.) Nicknames Can Be Super Creepy - In my Mistborn review I mentioned how nicknames can show familiarity, but in this book, nicknames were extremely creepy. Ursula called the boy "little pitcher" and it sent shivers down my spine.
How this can be applied to writing: A particular nickname signature to a villain can be very chilling.
2.) Food Adding Details - Don't neglect to mention food in your stories and be specific! When the boy mentioned drinking warm milk straight from the cow and eating honeycomb and porridge with blackberry jam I was immediately pulled into the setting.
How this can be applied to writing: I wrote a whole post about food in stories!
Conclusion: I enjoyed my first true foray into a Neil Gaiman book!
About the Author: Gaiman is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Neverwhere (1995), Stardust (1999), the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning American Gods (2001), Anansi Boys (2005), and Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett, 1990), as well as the short story collections Smoke and Mirrors (1998) and Fragile Things (2006).
His first collection of short fiction, Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions, was nominated for the UK's MacMillan Silver Pen Awards as the best short story collection of the year. Most recently, Gaiman was both a contributor to and co-editor with Al Sarrantonio of Stories (2010), and his own story in the volume, The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains, has been nominated for a number of awards.
American Gods has been released in an expanded tenth-anniversary edition, and there is an HBO series in the works.
Other books I've reviewed by this author:
A Book Review of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman