“I had strange dreams in that house, that night. I woke myself in the darkness, and I know only that a dream had scared me so badly that I had to wake up or die, and yet, try as I might, I could not remember what I had dreamed. The dream was haunting me: standing behind me, present and yet invisible, like the back of my head, simultaneously there and not there.”
This was my first Neil Gaiman book and I was a little surprised by how weird it was, but I guess that’s just Neil Gaiman for you. Weirdness is sort of the man’s forte.
And now I know.
I read it cover to cover in one airplane ride from Salt Lake to Atlanta, so although it is packed, it’s a pretty quick read. The bizarre plot is full of magic, charm, and existential moments derived of oceans that fit into buckets carried by knobby kneed eleven year old girls. The story is narrated by an unnamed middle aged man who upon returning to his childhood hometown of Sussex, England for a funeral, confronts a series of surreal memories in the neighborhood he roamed when he was 7 years old.
The book does a great job of capturing the childlike feelings of helplessness and inevitable dependency on the larger world of seemingly infallible adults and the fear that accompanies those earth shattering moments when you realize that adults are not only fallible, but sometimes selfish and manipulative as well.
In trying to describe the strangeness of the inconsistent adults in his life, the young narrator observed that “People kept pulling their faces off to reveal new faces beneath.”
I distinctly remember a part in the book where the young narrator after having a frightening fight with his father that involved being held under freezing bath water as punishment for his disobedience to the nanny, sneaks out of his bedroom window at night to escape everything. In his peripheral vision through a ground level window, he accidentally gets a glimpse of the fallacious family nanny, Ursula Monkton, seducing his father.
It was at this point that I contemplated putting the book down, because it was really beginning to wear on my low tolerance of “weird for weird’s sake.” It turns out, I’m usually just not that into magical wormy cloth faced home-wrecking nanny monster kind of books, so it was getting to be a bit much. I’m glad, however, that I persevered.
As he’s running barefoot through a field in a thunderstorm in search of his only friend Lettie Hempstock’s house, the narrator thinks back on what he accidentally saw and suddenly becomes overwhelmed with confusion and panic as he realizes how wrong it was that his father was kissing a woman that wasn’t his mother. This moment was especially poignant and heart-breaking for me as I realized that it didn’t actually matter whether Ursula Monkton was in fact an amorphous rotting cloth creature from another world, or just a promiscuous nanny. The fear and dread that the narrator experienced as he tried to make sense of the cruel and inconstant dreamscape of childhood was very real. And for a seven year old child, a cruel and dishonest nanny shattering the bond of your mom and dad’s relationship just might seem as bizarre and frightening as a worm made of rotting cloth that enters your heart through a tiny conduit in the sole of your seven year old foot.
Whether or not the pond behind Lettie Hempstock’s house was an ocean at the end of the lane or just a muddy pond, while swimming in that water, the narrator began deducing truths about life and reality. Upon ascending back to the surface after his first submersion in that “ocean” the narrator reports, “I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”
While the book is peppered with light hearted moments of literally snipping out bad moments with scissors from cloth and restitching the fabric of time to create a different past, most of the book is rather dark. In remembering his strange childhood, it is not clear whether the narrator even knows where to draw the line between memory and fantasy. After getting past the initial weirdness of all of it, I really appreciated this book, mostly because as I think back and remember my own childhood, I will admit that some memories are ” present and yet invisible, like the back of my head, simultaneously there and not there.”
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to connect with the strange fears and excitements of childhood as well as the often blurred lines between memories and half truths.