I am a huge Neil Gaiman fan. I loved his work on Sandman and have read most of his novels up until “Ocean”. With that in mind, I didn’t go into this book without preconceptions.
Gaiman has a cult following on the internet. He’s respected as a craftsman of literature and held in high regard as a storyteller. I wasn’t disappointed by this book, but I wasn’t blown away by it either.
This novel is a quick read. The story lasts all of 178 pages, which is not a short length, but it certainly feels short. Some sections of the book feel much longer than others with their slow pacing and atmosphere. The framing device is interesting, the story being set against the backdrop of a funeral.
The main character, who doesn’t seem to have a name, starts as an older man visiting his childhood town for a funeral. Interestingly, the adulthood segments are vague and non-descriptive (the narrator has no name and the funeral is mentioned without detail) yet the story shifts to the main character’s childhood which bears more detail and description.
The story begins to feel mixed up in its focus. It wants to reminisce about childhood through the lens of an adult’s reasoning, but also seems to deal with mysticism, philosophy, art, death, meaning, and all sorts of other themes that would have been interesting on their own but are barely touched in passing.
It’s arguable that these themes aren’t meant to be the focus, the story is meant to be the focus. So let’s discuss the story.
[THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS]
The story is fairly simply once it’s boiled down to its elements: the main character meets Lettie, a sort of magical character who lives with her mother and grandmother. These characters are more than they appear to be and paint an interesting and vivid universe. However, the basic plot is that something starts giving money to people at random, filling the people with fear and hate. Lettie helps the narrator banish the creature with the warning that he not let go of her arm. He does, and the creature takes hold of him in a manner. Ultimately, the point of the story is to keep the narrator safe as the creature tries to torture him while keeping him alive as a sort of conduit.
The basic story framework is not complicated. The details and the world-building are exquisite and Gaiman proves he has a mastery of the English language. Yet the novel runs into problems where it seems like elements are just sort of tacked on for length and take away from the tension. Specifically, the inclusion of the hunger birds destroying the world because they couldn’t get the narrator was an odd choice, since the threat was mostly unnamed and unseen throughout much of the book. It felt like a cliche addition. In fact, in most of the book, there was more of a boogieman-type, childlike fear of the dark lurking in the pages.
I also disliked the inclusion of the creature as a worm and then a woman. It almost feels like you could have just jumped to it being the woman (but then how would it have escaped the Hempstock farm?). Also the parts where it was a woman felt like the story dragged on for far too long. Readers want the narrator to be around the Hempstocks, not stuck in his room moping while thinking about Gilbert and Sullivan!
All in all I was not disappointed. These are minor concerns in an otherwise enjoyable book. This book isn’t perfect, however, and I wouldn’t expect it to be. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to any fan of Gaiman’s as one of his best.