One thing you have to appreciate about reading and contemplating a Neil Gaiman novel for adults is that he is not writing for adults. One of the great talents that Gaiman has is locating our inner child, after all, adults are nothing more than big children. The inner child is what drives us to engage in fiction, to quest for knowledge and to lose ourselves in make believe. Gaiman has the incredibly ability in his writing to find that part of us and engage with it.
Now this particular book doesn’t actually stand as an adult book. Not really, compared to American Gods anyway. But then neither does Neverwhere or Stardust either, though they are written a lot more viscerally. In fact there is a scene in Ocean that an earlier Gaiman would have gone over the top with. A scene of a sexual nature that really does look at upon such things with innocent childish eyes rather than those of the narrators’ true maturity and reflection. Even with the protagonist being older and remembering the story, everything is narrated in a voice that one can only achieve in real life via mass inebriation or running the risk of being sectioned. But it is pulled off so beautifully. Even if you yourself have no relative appreciation of growing up in the sticks with the magic of nature and its hidden goodies, you can still relate to the tone of voice.
Which is where I get a slight bit critical, and this may be because of how much this has been billed as an ‘adult’ book and because I’d not long read American Gods, quite possibly Gaiman’s most adult novel. The prose, whilst still beautifully imaginative and screaming its way off your inner voice’s tongue like sliding down a velour sofa and giving a static shock to the nearest unsuspecting target, does feel different. Maybe because the character is a forty-something man being a seven year old boy struggling with how memory really does betray you and desperate to escape. But it feels like it is a tad forced, maybe? Possibly too aware of the problems that such a dialogue presents, Gaiman honestly and innocently recreates the voice of our character and his motivations beautifully, but at the sacrifice of some of the extraordinary turns of phrase and dialogue he is most certainly famed for.
Having said this, his villain, the evil childminding nanny of many a family movie, doesn’t get nearly enough page time, nor ever comes across as inherently evil. Mainly because she isn’t but the lines blur between her being the antagonist and the child’s opinion of something he just doesn’t like. Which doesn’t make her that strong, unlike the heroine of the piece who is mysterious by her absence when you think the story naturally devises ways to drop her in, and her ability to instill complete trust in a boy scared but reflectively underwhelmed by the proportion of magic before him. A magic that is well presented in the book physically with its lovely cover which feels great and much more tactile than a hardback book deserves to be.
I am a fan of course of Gaiman’s work, which makes this review a little harder to judge critically, but it is most certainly not without its merits and is very good at what it does. However, if you’re expecting a darkly gothic darkly humours masterpiece, this isn’t going to feed that desire fully. But it will certainly keep you going and is a great story to enjoy with your family and to personally indulge in a little childhood nostalgia. Whilst it is Gaiman with his finger on the literary trigger, he keeps us on the edge waiting to hit us with the speeding bullet that will amaze and confound us as readers of his work.
4/5 – Definitely read this lament to our forgotten pasts and enjoy the jolt memory lane will give your brain chemicals. Fun for the family to read, but if you want something harder then dip into the back catalogue now conveniently reissued.