Human yet deliciously alien

Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Headline 2014 (2013)

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.
— Shakespeare: Hamlet

Like all good fantasy books, what makes this novel outstanding is not so much the magic (of which there is enough to sate the most avid of fans) but the essential truths that it contains: of human nature, of joy and pain, of choices and consequences, of life and of death. It strongly evokes what it’s like to be a child trying to make sense of an adult world, learning through books and above all through bitter experience. My main criterion when judging a performance, a work of art or a book is: Would I want to experience it again? In this case the answer is unhesitatingly Yes! And why? Because it is life-affirming; while conversely — and, seemingly, perversely — affirming that the inevitable consequence of life is death.

I confess I shall be hard pushed to mention everything that struck me as I read this, so exquisite was the underlay below the equally rich surface details. The unnamed narrator has been attending a funeral in Sussex — for his father, one soon realises — and afterwards drives off to the site of the former family home, and then on to a farm, curious about the pond that he remembers being there. It instantly brings back childhood memories, specifically when he was around the age of seven; and what memories they turn out to be!

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A heavy responsibility well acquitted

Diana-Wynne-Jones

Diana Wynne Jones
Reflections: On the Magic of Writing
Foreword by Neil Gaiman

Greenwillow Books 2012

Where to start? Diana Wynne Jones was a very individual and distinctive voice within British fantasy writing, highly regarded and rightly so, though that recognition was perhaps long coming: for example, though I was aware of the name I only first read her work in 2004, on a strong recommendation, beginning with The Merlin Conspiracy. However, from then on I was hooked. She had a growing loyal following from the mid-seventies onwards, but perhaps the fillip to her popularity came with an audience keen for more fiction along the lines of the Harry Potter books, aided by the success of the Japanese animated film of her Howl’s Moving Castle. Sadly, within a relatively little time she discovered she had cancer, dying just two years later in 2011.

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The Joy of Books (1)

There’s something about book anticipation that gets to this particular bibliophile. When I was a kid I remember being intrigued by the packaging of Fry’s Five Boys chocolate bar with its fivefold image of one lad in various stages: Desperation, Pacification, Expectation, Acclamation and Realization. Maybe I won’t quite go through all five stages before acquiring the desired object — in my case, the book rather than a bar of chocolate — but that stage of expectation is one that I especially relish. Even the image of books (as in a watercolour of vintage paperbacks hanging on our wall) is enough to have me salivating.

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Hell’s Angels meet the Outlaws

angel

Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman Good Omens
Corgi 2011 (1990)

Good Omens is the inventive comic fantasy you’d expect from both these authors, a eschatological novel which in 1990 documented the final week of History. The cast of characters whose individual actions and thoughts gradually coalesce for the final denouement are easily distinguishable, from the angel who guarded the gates of Eden to the angel “who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”, from Witchfinders to fortune-tellers, from the group of mostly ordinary kids entertaining themselves over the summer to the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse (Equal Opportunities apply to supernatural beings these days too) appropriately sporting Hell’s Angels on their motorcycle jackets. Has Armageddon really arrived? Only this book can tell you. Continue reading “Hell’s Angels meet the Outlaws”

Wanderer in lands remote

raven sutton hoo
Raven, from the Anglo-Saxon shield found at Sutton Hoo

Neil Gaiman American Gods:
the Author’s Preferred Text

Headline Review 2005 (2004/2001)

“Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile, who far and wide
A Wand’rer, after Ilium overthrown,
Discover’d various cities, and the mind
And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote.
He num’rous woes on Ocean toss’d, endured,
Anxious to save himself, and to conduct
His followers to their home.” — William Cowper (1791)

Contrary to popular opinion the new millennium actually began at the start of 2001. This was the date celebrated by director Stanley Kubrick in the Arthur C Clarke inspired 2001: A Space Odyssey and with good reason — not only did this narrate a new beginning for humankind but it referenced the voyages of wily Odysseus after the sack of Troy. 2001 was also when the first and original version of Gaiman’s American Gods appeared and this too treated with new beginnings allied to wanderings, this time around the United States.

What’s it about? “It’s about the soul of America, really,” the author tells us. “What people brought to America; what found them when they came; and the things that lie sleeping beneath it all.” It’s also about a wanderer called Shadow who, in Cowper’s words about Odysseus, discovers “various cities, and the mind | And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote”. Of course we can tell from the title that it’s about faith and belief: when we believe in gods do they have a kind of physical existence in this world? And if we then cease to believe in those gods do they cease to exist?

The novel begins realistically. Shadow (a Jungian name, if ever I saw one) is nearing the end of his jail sentence, imposed for an uncharacteristic act of violence. Looking forward to returning home and seeing his wife Laura, he is surprised to be released early. Shocked by the news he receives he heads home, only to be offered a job by a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr Wednesday. Things then take a strange turn and his odyssey zigzagging around North America begins.

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A Faerie primer

3graces
The Three Graces from Botticelli’s Primavera (circa 1482) in the Uffizi, Florence

Susanna Clarke The Ladies of Grace Adieu
Illustrated by Charles Vess
Bloomsbury 2007 (2006)

I have quite a few illustrated reprints of 19th- and early 20th-century folk- and fairy-tale collections on my shelves, some even facsimiles of the originals, and so this collection of short stories by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in many ways seemed familiar. Not only were the Charles Vess illustrations deliberately reminiscent of those of Arthur Rackham and his ilk, but the writing often recalled antiquarian texts with the occasional scholarly footnotes. In fact I was often reminded of the ghost stories of M R James in that they seemed as if written by an earlier avatar of that academic.

Above all, of course, the style was unmistakably that of Susanna Clarke’s own magnificent debut novel with its Regency aesthetic and period spelling — and no worse for that. That this collection has been compared unfavourably with that doorstopper of a fantasy is unfortunate since it should be judged solely as a group of short fictions: as such it is much more successful than many an uneven selection of miscellaneous tales, even those by a single author.

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Death, wizards and hats

brain, old print
… and still the wonder grew that one small head could carry all he knew.

Terry Pratchett A Slip of the Keyboard:
Collected Non-Fiction
Foreword by Neil Gaiman
Corgi 2015 (2014)

I’ve come late to Pratchett’s writings. I had tried some comic fantasy and sci-fi and found it wanting; it mostly seemed to be trying too hard to be funny and witty. I enjoyed Red Dwarf on TV and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio but somehow on the page much of this genre writing seemed to consist of dull, lifeless things, full of their own cleverness. So, despite everyone saying I ought to try Pratchett, that I’d like his stuff, I resisted it. Perhaps it was the cover illustrations that put me off: “This is a wickedly weird funny book!” they seemed to scream at me.

Finally I recently took the plunge. Somehow the Piaf song Je ne regrette rien now rings a little hollow…

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