For The Guardian
Neil Gaiman is at his best when he abandons his trademark fantasy for stark realism
This is Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys in 2005 and his millions of fans will be mad for it. It tells the story of a man who returns to Sussex for a funeral and then finds himself driving “randomly” to the scenes of his childhood. He is drawn to the Hempstock farmhouse wherein, he remembers, there lived three generations of powerful and mysterious Hempstock women. The youngest of these, Lettie, used to call their duck pond her “Ocean” – later revealed (in a beautiful passage) to be a metaphor for what might best be described as the cosmic life force. And it is by this Ocean that the narrator sits down and recalls the magical and traumatic events that befell his seven-year-old self.
Those events get scary when the hero wakes with a coin choking his throat. He and Lettie take the problem to the older two Hempstock women who warn them to be careful when they set out to “bind” the malevolence.
Out in the fields, they encounter the monster: “some kind of tent, as high as a country church, made of grey and pink canvas that flapped in the gusts of storm wind… a lopsided canvas structure aged by weather and ripped by time”. In the ensuing struggle, the narrator lets go of Lettie’s hand as she chants the binding spell (though these Hempstocks don’t call them spells: “Gran doesn’t hold with none of that. She says it’s common.”) and the monster places a worm into the arch of the narrator’s foot.
Later, the boy removes the worm but doesn’t quite get it all out. The malevolence stays and assumes the human form of the tall blonde Ursula Monkton, the narrator’s evil live-in nanny, who wears a ragged grey and pink dress that also flaps. Now there’s real trouble. And the only thing that Ursula Monkton is scared of, the only thing that will get rid of this kind of a monster, are the formidable “hunger” birds…
You’d be right in surmising that I find all these flapping tent-monsters and worms in your feet and beautiful governesses slightly gauche. Which wouldn’t matter (and doesn’t, in terms of those millions of fans) except that I also find Gaiman much more interesting as a writer than this somewhat laboured “mythic” story permits.