Our nameless narrator has returned home for a funeral, and in the aftermath of it finds himself wandering to an older neighbor’s house he visited as a child. Sitting by the pond, which he recalls a childhood friend insisting was an ocean, he remembers things that defy rational explanation.
If you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman, then you know what to expect. If you haven’t, then generally what to expect is whimsy by the bucketful, some true horror thrown in for color, magic and disillusionment, and a lot of illusory feelings that usually can only be imagined as fairy dust or steam, whichever suits how you feel about illusory feelings.
Our protagonist, who as I mentioned above is never given a name, could be the poster boy for anyone who would especially be drawn to a book like this. Gaiman is speaking directly to his audience through this child, and that happened to work really well for me. An overly smart kid with a big imagination who wants to be heard but isn’t due mainly to his young age. There are a lot of us who experienced that, and Gaiman is the sort of writer who has not forgotten at all what that was like, and it rings throughout this entire book.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to mention that one of my favorite things about this particular child protagonist was the fact that he did make some poor choices. He was very smart, but he was still just a kid. So many books that feature a young hero want to show them being virtuous in every way and incapable of failure and the trick is to believe in yourself! Not quite so here. There is not exposition dump that brings him properly up to speed. There is no discernible quest he should be on. He’s simply thrown into a magical and terrifying situation and expected to deal with the help of someone who appears to be the same age as him. It lends a sense of realism to this vastly unreal scenario.
Speaking of Lettie and her family, I appreciated that the magic wasn’t something that could be easily defined. These aren’t witches or fairies or elves. They’re something older than time with no name. This monster isn’t just a bogeyman. It’s something amorphous and petty and childishly spoiled with the power to twist the world to its selfish desires, taking forms that are unique to Gaiman’s imagination. An ocean can exist in a pond, and it can be everything. Gaiman really does breathe new life into old tropes.