This book is childhood. We all had one. And at some point, it had to die. All that’s left are memories, which are completely separate from the real thing. Adults’ memories of childhood are like a child’s imaginings of adulthood: idealized and distorted, as if viewed from the bottom of a pond as deep as the ocean.
Or, as Gaiman puts it, “Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”
Our unnamed narrator starts off the story as a middle-aged man attending a funeral in his hometown. It’s been some years, and he goes back to visit the places of his childhood with a deep sense of loss, eventually making it to the farmhouse at the end of the lane. A girl used to live there, when he was seven. He can’t remember her exactly, other than she went somewhere far away–Australia, was it?–and she never came back. He sits on a bench beside the pond she told him was an ocean. Silly things, children say. A pond can’t be an ocean. Oceans are bigger than seas, which are much bigger than ponds.
Then, as he looks into the still water of the pond, he starts to remember. Things that no adult can remember looking back on their own childhood, because he remembers not only what happened but also understands it through the lens of age and experience. What happened back then, what he’d forgotten up until this moment, seems very significant
So begins the story, which I will tell you nothing about. It needs to be experienced for yourself, and it will mean something different to you than it did to me. All I can tell you is that it’s beautiful, and terrible, and frightening and real. It will make your hair stand on end, it will make you nod your head in agreement. This is, using the narrator’s terminology, “true art.” It feel like it has been a part of the world forever, and we’ve only just recently unearthed it.
One sample, not even related to the plot, of how true this is. A lot of people have latched onto a quote of Lettie Hempstock about there being no adults anywhere, which is just fabulous, but this quote was the first of a great many to bring me to tears. The narrator had previously explained that his father doesn’t like toasters so he makes all the their toast on the broiler, where it inevitably burns:
At home my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.
So read this. Please, if you read anything this year. One reviewer said this book is for anyone who’s ever been a child. And I will agree. Gaiman describes his magic in a way you could almost believe it, and certainly leaves you wishing such things existed, somewhere in the world outside of our memories.