It’s taken months for this to become available at the library, literally months. But the fact that it’s in such high demand should be a good sign, right? Or a good omen if you will. Ha. (Sorry). It finally came free on Thursday afternoon, perfectly timed for my long train journey up north. So, was it worth the wait?
You expect a certain sort of fantasy from Neil Gaiman and this didn’t disappoint. I thought it was vivid, a little creepy, surreal and completely absorbing. At the start of the novel our unnamed narrator returns to his home town in Sussex for a funeral, after an absence of many years. He finds himself drawn to the pond at the end of the lane which, he now recalls, was known as the ‘ocean’ by his childhood friend Lettie Hemstock. As he looks over the water he remembers a series of strange events from when he was seven years old. These events began with the death of the family lodger, a South African opal miner, and ended with a malignant, parasitic being from another world taking up the lodger’s place in our narrator’s childhood home. So far so Neil Gaiman.
Lucky for our narrator, the Hemstocks also live at the end of the lane and they’re of good magical stock. Lettie, her mother and grandmother have, at the time in question, been living in their cottage for over a thousand years. They remember William Rufus, the Civil War and the ‘old country’ before our world as we know it began. I liked the Hemstocks and I liked this idea, that these three women have been fixed to that spot watching the world change around them for centuries. It works. Without them, moreover, it’d really be quite a bleak novel; there’s little other light relief or comfort to be had.
Gaiman is really good at calling to mind the helplessness you felt as a child, your utter powerlessness to change the life around you. Our narrator, as a seven year old, feels doubly powerless because he cannot trust the adults in his life; both of his parents have been manipulated by the new lodger and are in thrall to her, not recognising her as the monster she really is. This, I think, is the scariest part of the story.
“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.”
As an adult our narrator struggles to know whether his knowledge of these events which happened so long ago can be trusted. His memories advance and retreat according to his proximity to the Hemstocks. The facts are forgotten, remembered and forgotten in rapid succession. It’s very nicely done.
TOATEOTL is supposed to be a novel for adults but I don’t think it differs all that much from some of his children’s books. One brief episode aside, it’d certainly be suitable for children. That isn’t a criticism at all and I don’t think the book suffers because its intended audience is a bit uncertain. There doesn’t really need to be a clear cut distinction between books-for-adults and books-for-children; many people, me included, will happily read either. However, it could explain why this particular novel doesn’t feel quite as substantial as Neverwhere or American Gods. It’s an awkward, almost unsatisfactory, length. It does read a little like a short story that got out of hand.
But on the whole I think I liked it, just not wholeheartedly. I certainly didn’t not enjoy it. It’d be hard to not enjoy something by Gaiman; everything he writes is colourful and sinister and wonderfully imagined, this included. It’s a simple good vs. evil story with monsters and magic and spells but it didn’t, to me, feel like anything new. I’d have a liked a bit more; more story, more character development, more of a sense of place and time, more answers, more everything.