Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Book Review Club: September

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@Barrie Summy

After a long, semi-blissful summer vacation (the rain in Maine was a pain), the Book Review Club greets another autumn. Don't forget to click the icon to read the other reviews!

By Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2013

It’s odd, the distinction between a children’s book and a novel for adults. In the couple of weeks since I read it, I have repeatedly recommended Neil Gaiman’s tiny jewel of a new book as a middle-grade read like THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, his previous, mega-award-winning novel.

Please disregard. There’s sex in this book, although it’s described by a seven-year-old who finds it so inexplicable it almost fades into the wallpaper. Also, the sweet, sad theme of how we adults remember things (or misremember them) might not interest those who have just over a decade of memories to fool around with.

Part of my confusion may be that OCEAN borrows an important character, the “witch” Lettie Hempstock, from the decidedly middle-grade GRAVEYARD BOOK. Another might be that, except for a prologue and epilogue featuring the nameless narrator as a tired, sorrowful adult, most of this new story is told from his perspective at a solemn age seven. Lettie, the narrator’s guide and savior through a blood-chilling fantasy adventure, appears to be only eleven, although there are indications that she, her mother, and her grandmother may count their ages in eons.

Also odd: Why do so many Neil Gaiman books end up seamless? Reverse engineering them is nearly impossible—they (like Lettie’s grandmother) have existed whole since time began, and that’s all there is to it.

The story begins just after “the bad birthday party”—our narrator turned seven and nobody came to his party. If you had any doubt about the harrowing nature of this book, they’re dispelled by the description of unused party hats and cake eaten alone with a younger sister and her friend.

Soon after, a South African opal miner takes the kid’s bedroom as a boarder and runs over his cat, replacing it with a miserable beast called Monster, who mercifully doesn’t stick around. Then the opal miner follows suit, driving the household car up the lane and committing suicide in it.

The circumstances attract the attention of one of the weirdest otherworldly creatures Gaiman has ever created: Something that looks like a large, flapping canvas tent, who says it wishes to give humans what they want but goes about it in the most destructive possible way. For example: Money being at issue for both miner and household, our narrator wakes up one morning choking on a silver shilling lodged in his throat.

Under the tutelage of her mother and grandmother, Lettie steps in. She takes the narrator into a parallel world to confront the creature, and between the two of them they start a series of supernatural conflicts that at one horrifying point cause the narrator’s father to half-drown him in the bathtub. The poor kid is the only one who knows that something’s wrong, and no one will believe him. So, in the best middle-grade tradition (just kidding), he has to take action himself, with Lettie as guide and protector.

This is a deeply unsettling book, touching many of our primal fears. (Daddy’s trying to drown me!) But it also is beautiful and haunting, and so exquisitely written that you don’t even notice. On the surface, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, but I think that’s because it has a denser weave. I’m going to re-read it to see if I can even identify individual threads.

It’s a very short book. And it’s perfect. What a feat.

(Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday, instead of a cake and party hats. Thank heavens.)