This is one of those books that you have to think about for a while after you finish it.
An unnamed man comes back to his childhood home for the first time in years. While he is there, he starts thinking about when he was seven years old. He remembers the suicide of the man who lived upstairs and the evil creature that the suicide unleashed. The narrator survived the creature because he was saved by his friend, Lettie Hempstock, but he hasn’t seen Lettie in a long time, and he doesn’t quite remember what happened to her.
If you just look at the surface of this story, it’s pretty simple. This book actually reminds me of a more-intense version of Coraline. The narrator and Lettie have to defeat the monster who comes to the narrator’s home disguised as a nanny. The narrator’s parents are oblivious to the fact that the nanny is a monster, so the narrator and Lettie are on their own.
I think this book will be disappointing if you take it at face value. It’s a pretty average horror/fantasy story, but there is a lot going on under the surface. The family that the narrator grows up in has problems. They don’t have much money, so they’re forced to rent out the top floor of the house. The narrator’s mother has to go back to work, and while she’s away, his father may be having an affair. His father may also be abusing him. This is a lot for a seven-year-old to handle. The reader has to wonder if the magic in the story is real, or if it’s just a way for a child to cope with his unpleasant reality. It makes sense that a seven-year-old would blame a monster for all of the scary things that happen to him. The nanny came into his life at the start of a difficult time, so he blames her for causing the problems that happen later.
Or, at least, that’s how I interpreted the story. I love books that make me question the reliability of the characters.
However, I have the same problem with this book that I have with Neil Gaiman’s other books. The magical elements aren’t explained enough for me. A lot of crazy stuff happens, but I never felt like I totally understood why it was happening. It frustrates me to not understand a magic system or a character’s motivations. I guess if this story comes from the imagination of a seven-year-old, there wouldn’t be complex villains and magic systems, but I wanted complex villains and magic systems. Too much of this book is left unexplained.
Like the other Neil Gaiman books I’ve read, this one is fast-paced and easy to read. I sped through it in a few hours. The magical world in this book is pretty sinister. There’s one scene where the narrator pulls a live worm out of a hole in his foot. I hate bugs, and I hate holes, so no . . . yucky. I think the author does a realistic job of showing this strange world through the eyes of a child and an adult. I liked this book and will probably continue reading Neil Gaiman’s work.