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Neil Gaiman is not only one of my favorite living authors, but of all authors I know of he is also the best audiobook reader of his own work. Upon moving to a new town and getting a card at the local library, I chose his reading of this book as my first borrowing. It lent a spine-tingling chill to my daily driving, and toward the end it made me have to wipe my cheeks and blow my nose before getting out of the car.
The narrator never tells us his name. He never says exactly whose funeral brings him back to the town where he grew up. Until he arrives at the shore of the pond beyond the farmhouse at the end of the lane he used to live on, he doesn’t even know what has brought him back here. And then he remembers it all. He remembers the opal miner who stole his father’s car and committed suicide in it. He remembers the eleven-year-old girl named Lettie Hemptstock who saved his life when he was seven. And he remembers the terrible, dangerous magic that almost tore the world apart before his boyish eyes. And then he forgets again.
Certain books defy synopsis. Were I to say enough about this story to give you an idea what to expect, I could easily spoil too much of it. I dare hint only at generalities. The boy in the story experiences suffocating, pants-wetting fear. He grows enough to show death-defying courage. He places his life in the hands of a maiden, a mother, and a crone who somehow seem older than the world. And he faces beings from another world whose presence in our world would doom either it or them. Because of one tiny, childish mistake, he brings one of them home with him, and the results are disastrous. It takes a magic beyond magic to set things right again.
It’s a story about the vast gulf between childhood and maturity. It’s about the magic of remembering and the mercy of forgetting. It’s about the bittersweetness of being a brainy, bookish kid with no close friends, a well furnished imagination, and an imperfectly happy home life. How many of us can relate to that?
This partly biographical novel was the British National Book Awards’ Book of the Year for 2013. By now I should hardly need to add that its author is the Hugo, Nebula, Mythopoeic Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Carnegie, and Newbery award-winning creator of Coraline, Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, Stardust, American Gods, and The Sandman graphic novels. All that and he’s got a great voice!