Bring your trunks!

Bring your trunks!

“It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm.”

I’ve been contemplating joining a writer’s group for a while, if only to discuss ideas and get feedback on work in progress, but finding one locally has been a challenge. As it happens, however, I will be able to attend one nearby next week, one that is frequented by two good friends of mine. It then transpired that every other meeting is dedicated to a certain book, meaning the group is both a writer’s group and a book club. The meeting I’m attending – yep, book club. Had I read the book? No.

So, here we are. Neil Gaiman.

The paperback was cheaper than the hardback, but it only came out yesterday (yes, I’ve read this in two days) so I had to wait for it. That’s actually part of the reason I then got to finish Jane Eyre – to have something to potter through until it arrived. Gaiman is an author I love, and while I knew that this book had had great reviews and been universally applauded, I was in no real hurry to get hold of it – until circumstances changed, obviously. So, am I just going to join the masses and say what a great book this is? Yeah, pretty much.

The book opens with the nameless narrator escaping a funeral and heading down to the place his childhood house was. He continues down the lane and finds the farmhouse that sits at the end of it, and begins to wonder if the young girl he knew back when he was seven, Lettie Hempstock, is still there. He instead finds an old woman and he asks to go and see the pond in the back garden, a pond that Lettie claimed was an ocean. As he remembers this, he recalls that Lettie said she – along with her mother and grandmother – arrived from across this ocean, and then more and more memories begin to pour from him…

The narrative flies back forty-odd years to when the narrator was seven years old, and tells the story of how he met Lettie Hempstock, a curious girl who was apparently eleven, but had been for a very long time. His story begins to unfold, talking about his kitten, and the opal miner, and then the visit to Lettie’s house, where she introduces him to a world unlike any he’s ever known. While doing battle with a strange creature from another universe, something happens and he returns with a hole in his foot. There’s something inside that hole, and pulling it out won’t end the horror. That’s when Ursula Monkton turns up, and everything for the narrator begins to go wrong.

As magical as we’ve come to expect from Gaiman, he takes the fantastical and makes it almost mundane. He appreciates that children are far more accepting of things than adults are – the narrator notes that most of the time he tells the truth, people think he’s lying, so why would they believe that his nanny is a creature from another space and time – and more willing to take things in their stride, unaware of their own morality. Everyone thinks they’re immortal at seven.

Predominately, however, it is a book about memory. Memory continually fluctuates, changing depending on what else happens in our lives. As Old Mrs Hempstock says, you’ll never get two people to agree about anything, not entirely. The magical women in the old farmhouse at the end of the lane – Lettie, Ginnie and Old Mrs Hempstock – are wonderful creatures, a tad menacing given that their powers are totally unexplained, but they have nothing but affection for the narrator and are only really seen to use their powers for good, despite them being capable of things few could imagine, such as summoning creatures from other places, and stitching and sewing time to remove bad patches.

There are some wonderful moments, and some deeply disturbing ones. A scene that sticks out is when the narrator dreams that he’s choking on something, only to wake up and find a shilling in his throat. He begins to doubt what is real and what isn’t. He’s not afraid to ask questions, even if he doesn’t always get answers from them.

The ending is, without question, a little surprising, but it absolutely works and Gaiman has once again done truly marvellous things with that powerhouse he calls an imagination. It’s a quick read, but it’s beautiful and might make you think about how clearly you remember some things from your youth…