“How do you know?”
She shrugged. “Once you’ve been around for a bit, you get to know stuff.”
I kicked a stone. “By ‘a bit’, do you mean ‘a really long time’?”
“How old are you, really?” I asked.
I thought for a while. Then I asked, “How long have you been eleven for?”
She smiled at me.
I have been reading Neil Gaiman since about 1991. One of the first comics of his I read was his issue of Batman: Secret Origins, when he had the wonderful idea of having a normal person describe to another couple of normal people what it was like to wake up and suddenly find Batman standing there in his bedroom. “What did he look like?” one asks. “Cold voice, sort of whispery, and his cape kinda screws with your… I dunno, can we change the subject?” he replies. That person leaves the room. The other takes up the conversation. “Did he see me there?” she asks. He nods. “Brrrrrr…”
Neil Gaiman is wonderful at taking that fantastical, utility-belt-and-super-villain unreality and stitching it to reactions and emotions and people that we experience ourselves in the waking world. Of course a normal person would be freaked out beyond all measure to find a leather-clad crimefighter in his bedroom in the middle of the night, and a normal person would probably have someone in their bed with them, and what if the reason that the someone was in there was a little, you know, complicated… Who needs that kind of interference? Talk about performance anxiety…
Batman appears quite a lot in Gaiman’s new novel, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, as well. It’s the story of a middle-aged man who returns to the site of his long-demolished childhood home and finds himself sitting by a duck pond that might be an ocean, remembering back when he was seven and his life was all Batman and books and the family of women who lived down the lane in an old farm that has been there forever.
The family of women, the Hempstocks, are an eleven year-old girl called Lettie, her mother and her grandmother – the maiden mother crone archetype, of course, that we all instinctively recognise and that Gaiman has done such a beautiful job echoing through his work as kind of a true source of nature, nurture, inspiration and termination. Gaiman cut his long, white teeth on comics, and although his Sandman series ended in 1996 (specials notwithstanding) it is still one of that artform’s most popular touchstones for mature storytelling. But although the story of Morpheus, King of Dreams, is the story of a lonely god-of-sorts, dressing in black and taking himself verrrrrrrry seriously in a land of nightmare and dangerous myths, a boy’s story, in lots of ways, Gaiman always made sure that the women in the story rang harder and louder and oftentimes more grownup and more interesting. Dream’s big sister is Death (“How would you feel about life if Death was your big sister?” went an early tagline) and she gives her little brother such stick for his adolescent whimsy-mimsy emo nonsense. In one story, a young woman catches herself noodling away on her thesis on the role of the triple goddess in American TV sitcoms, you know, in Roseanne and wotnot – she’s totally right, you can find that Darlene-Roseanne-Beverly power source everywhere, once you start to look. Her observation is a magic that rings true in us, the magic is everyday, it doesn’t have to look like David Bowie and wear a really long black coat in the middle of summer.
That conflict, or resonance, because not everything needs to be a battle, is at the beautiful heart of Neil Gaiman’s wonderful new novel. This is the story of a seven year-old boy who appreciates that everything in the world is going to be weird to him – he doesn’t expect to understand the world, it’s still a cacophony of strange magic. He adores books, crawls inside them to hide and explore, but he also pulls the stories he finds in there back out with him: he learns to clamber down drainpipes because that’s what the little boys and girls in his stories do, and he meets faeries and witches and old gods at the farm at the bottom of the lane because that’s who you find in mysterious times in lonely places.
But although this is the story of a boy who seriously wants his own Batcave to hide in, and who has to rely on the help of an ancient figure of awesome power who looks like a little girl and knows the language of shaping things, this is also the story of a little boy who doesn’t like conflict, isn’t sure whether he fits in or likes having people around him or not, is frightened of the dark and doesn’t quite understand his father. It’s the story of every single little boy and girl, in other words; it’s just that this little boy has an adventure that could have only have happened to him and that affects him forever in a way that makes absolute sense in the terms of the story, and in terms of his character.
This is a very Neil Gaiman story: very peculiar events and characters are described in a precise, clear and perfectly natural style, and the plot is very resonant of work that he has done before. The triple goddess is there, as is the power of dreams, the danger of wishing for things, the significance of doors and the fact that what is magic always has a price. I have been reading Neil Gaiman since I was a child, so that familiarity piggy-backs on this story and adds to the effect, like a magical flea catching a lift on a passing child wandering carelessly through the Dreaming. But even without that resonance this book would work – this is a quick, natural, playground skip through magical woods you know well, with enough bramble thorns to catch on you and remain with you. At its climax the little boy says something that he instantly knows that he should not have said, but he says it with truth and fear and absolute perspicacity: it is the heart of the book, and in this book of faeries and witches and nightmares that become real it is something that we all thought when we were seven. And that is the magic.
I got this book for Father’s Day and finished reading it on the way to work, just as I used to read Neil Gaiman’s comics on the way to school. And I still wear really long black coats in the middle of summer…