A middle-aged man goes back to his rural English home for his father’s funeral and decides to take a walk down the lane for some quiet time. When he reaches the spot where a miner had committed suicide in the family car when the man was eight years old, he is suddenly plunged back into memories of those events that began his friendship with Lettie Hempstock, an eleven-year-old girl who lived on an old farm with her mother and grandmother.
After the miner’s death, odd things begin to happen. The boy finds money all over the place, but it is old-fashioned money that is no longer in use. Once, he finds a silver shilling lodged in his windpipe as he wakes from a dream. When Lettie hears about these happenings, she decides to take things in hand before someone is hurt, and she knows just where to find the creature who is causing the trouble. Lettie, who is probably not really an eleven-year-old girl, tells the boy not to let go of her hand, but he accidentally lets go—just for a split second—and in that instant, his heart is pierced by an icy shard.
No one writes horror more beautifully than Neil Gaiman. The book’s small size and child narrator may tempt you to believe that this is a children’s book. It is most assuredly not. It is an exquisite nightmare, punctuated by solid, English hominess. After being forced to go into his bathroom to perform stomach-churning surgery on himself, the boy goes on to read a whole series of what appear to be Enid Blyton novels, full of ordinary boarding school stories. Although he has witnessed otherworldly terrors, he is comforted by a hearty English dinner in the farmhouse with Lettie’s mother and grandmother. This is so quintessentially British. I read Enid Blyton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Patricia St. John as a child, and part of their message seems to be that if you give children good, plain, English food and send them out into the fresh air, everything will come ‘round in the end. Unless, of course, the creatures outside want to kill you. And what is Daddy doing in the drawing room with the nanny? And what is the nanny, exactly?
Gaiman’s children’s novels, such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, are deservedly decorated, but even his adult novels often have a childlike quality to them, a deceptively innocent air. This novel certainly does, as does Stardust. They are rather like fairy tales with even more of an edge than the Brothers Grimm. Gaiman seems never to have lost his memories of what it is really like to be a child. He has great sympathy for children, and does not consider childhood to be a carefree time. In the 2012 Zena Sutherland Lecture, he stated:
Children are a relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them. (Find this in his journal here.)
Many of the worst situations that children in his novels face come as a result of the negligence or bad choices of the adults who were supposed to protect them. On the other hand, he also portrays wonderful, caring adults, such as Lettie’s mother and grandmother. Lettie is an ageless character, in many ways, and when the boy opines that grown-ups are not afraid of anything, Lettie says:
I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world. (P. 112)
I can highly recommend this enchanting and frightening tale to older teens and adults. If there is an audiobook in the works, do plan to listen. Neil Gaiman has a wonderful voice, and he reads most of his own audiobooks. In the meantime, you can go to YouTube and watch his commencement address called “Make Good Art” which was also made into a book that I recently gave as a graduation present. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll go listen to that speech again right now!
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. My gushing opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.