Neil Gaiman’s voice is very well-suited to the retelling of a fictional childhood. He really captures the perspective of a young boy, where each person is impossible to pin down in any one, static identity, and the world is relentless and inescapable; the book is starkly primordial in a way that only childhood memories are, and while the tone of this story leans rather heavily towards the horrific, it is an authentic, childhood horror, unsentimental while at the same time heart-achingly nostalgic. Reading this book made sense of his other work in a new way, too, specifically because his voice works so well here. Not that it doesn’t work well in his other books; I’d say Anansi Boys is the exception there, but then again I didn’t really like Anansi Boys. Can’t win ’em all I guess.
What was particularly resonant to me was the role of the women and girls in this story. The narrative’s mise-en-scene is dominated by women, and all the characters of any importance besides the main character, whose name I can’t even remember, are female. There’s Lettie, the older girl who lives at the End of the Lane who our main character rather adores; there’s her mother and grandmother; there’s the main villain who isn’t really a woman but takes the form of one in order to infiltrate and corrupt the main character’s fragile world. There is a running theme – though calling it a “theme” is like saying that the colour orange is the “theme” of an orange – of women (and Lettie) who define and create the world that the main character lives in, commanding powers that literally reshape reality almost on a whim. There is something almost Lovecraftian about the awe and terror embodied by the female characters, only highlighted further by the main character’s utter dependence on Lettie for safety, his completely useless parents (oblivious to the supernatural goings-on), and his total powerlessness overall.
In a sense it’s not even really his story; the combination of not just “strong” female characters but almost unfathomably powerful women (and Lettie), along with the main character’s dependence on them, really affected me, because the feelings that this story evoked for me are eerily similar to what I feel when I delve back into my own childhood memories. I was surrounded by women growing up, probably because most of my parents’ friends are my mother’s friends and most of them are women, and also I was a Playcentre kid, surrounded by other kids’ mothers. And from a very young age my best friend was a girl, we were pretty inseparable … there are so many parallels that it’s almost concerning.
So why do I say that this story is “boy-centric”? Well, these women (and Lettie) are all distinctly Other for our little soldier; he is in awe of them, whether that awe is adoring or terrified, but he never really understands them. That undoubtedly has to do with the fact that he’s very young, like about 5 years old or something, but throw in the supernatural powers and the knowledge that this story is at least semi-autobiographical and I’m left with the impression of women as more of a force of nature than as people. Lettie is both in the end, as she’s our hero’s only real friend and also would be considered the hero in a typical narrative (except for the fact that “typical narratives” are heinously sexist). And at the same time, she ends up dying to protect him – he’s powerless, and she’s super-special, and in the end she’s willing to sacrifice herself for his benefit, because she cares about him. Which is very sweet, though also a bit women-are-nurturers stereotypical – and also she doesn’t really die because she’s part of the very fabric of reality or something look I dunno it’s Neil Gaiman it’s weird.
And deeply personal, to the point of confrontation. It draws on a male mythology that involves women insofar as they constitute the environment, the narrative. But I wouldn’t say it outright objectifies women. It instead evokes that mindset of knowing that somebody else is, indeed, somebody else, a whole other person, but one that you can’t fathom and therefore can’t help but objectify a little, more to cope with the unknown than because you can’t see them as a human being, a symptom of your lack of understanding. It’s not a critical take on this gendered phenomenon by any means, but it is an authentic one, for me anyway. I don’t know how many other men have this kind of emotional, highly gender-differentiated childhood genesis that serves as the foundation of their very existence, and I would say that all of this review has been much more me talking about myself than trying to cast any particular aspersions on Neil Gaiman, however autobiographical of a work it may be.
For all that, it’s almost a story I’d say you’re not missing anything by not reading. He’s told more exciting stories, funnier stories, stories that feel a bit fuller, and he’s got more on the way. But this is a book that I’ll definitely remember, because it told me things about myself that I thought only I knew.
And this is probably the most true-ringing of Gaiman’s books I’ve ever read. Not my favourite, but it might be the one I’m the gladdest he wrote. It’s definitely the one that confronted and yet comforted me the most, reflecting my own experiences back onto me when I wasn’t expecting it, in ways I’m not entirely comfortable with, and I always appreciate that. The fact that it came from my favourite author doesn’t hurt any, either.
It is perhaps the definitive Neil Gaiman story. Make of that what you will. I’m just interested to see how the hell he’s gonna follow it up.