Amid the hurried lives we lead - weddings and funerals are the punctuated pauses in between when we can recollect that which was, and how it used to be. The anonymous character we meet in the first chapter wanders away from a funeral, to a lane where he once lived, more than thirty years ago; he meanders to the end of the lane where his friend once lived, here he stops by a duck pond -
‘Lettie Hempstock’s ocean.
I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.’
The first of the memories we encounter begin with the poignant 7th birthday party – it would ring a bell in most minds, weren’t you nervous at that age –that you’d throw a party to which no one came? However, displaying surprising maturity for a seven year old - the child never tries to find out why no one turned up –“I did not need to ask them. They were not my friends, after all. They were just the people I went to school with.”
Like some quiet reticent kids, he has books for friends, and a cat called Fluffy. They were inseparable, the cat made up for the absence of human friends in the child’s life. But one day, the young person is introduced to death by the tragic loss of Fluffy (as a child many a reader would be reminded of how he was told ‘Rover’s in doggy-heaven’). And the opal miner in check shirt and thick pale gold chain thought he would make up for the loss of the beloved feline by getting a replacement - a ginger cat called Monster. The ill tempered cat lived with the child for a week, a week in which the memory of Fluffy may have felt betrayed by the angry substitute, yet the kid stoically continues to withhold his sorrow and dismay from the world outside (‘I wanted to cry for my kitten, but I could not do that if anyone else was there and watching me.’), after all - he still had a cat!
Gaiman draws on his own (and somewhat macabre) childhood memory of the loss of his parents’ car - in the book, the child discovers the car is stolen, and when the police get it back, he rushes to retrieve his copy of SMASH! with Batman, only to find it lodged under the corpse of the man who stole the car, and chose to then die in it. Upon further discovery, he learns it was the opal miner, who left a note:
“To all my friends,
“Am so sorry it was not like I meant to and hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me for I cannot forgive myself.”
What was that again about black cats crossing one’s path?
Despite that very disturbing turn of events, the child finds a friend, not a book or an animal - but an apple cheeked, red-brown hair, gray-blue eyed girl from Hempstock farm (which was in the great Domesday Book survey executed for William the Conqueror in 1086), who gave him warm porridge with blackberry jam, and then led him to her ‘ocean’, gave him a sixpence coin from the gut of a dead fish (for luck), and memories to last a lifetime.
The opal miner’s unhappy spirit comes to haunt the street - and since he had loved money enough to steal it from his friends - his ghost starts to haunt people with ‘money trouble’, including the young boy.
The child is elated he has a handsome twenty five pounds inheritance, and coins dug up from his garden - but he wakes up choking in the night - a silver coin lodged in his throat. Lettie all knows grandmother, who was there ‘the day the moon came’, tells him the coin is new, although the date suggests it’s older. Lettie and ‘Him’ embark on an adventure to ‘Bind it, close its ways, send it back to sleep.” It - the opal miner’s spirit.
With instructions from Lettie to never let go of her hand, and the promise that she would protect him - the two are confronted by giant worms, gray raggedy creatures with nothing in them, and when they return - something is lodged in his foot. He sits in the bathroom, tugging into the hole with a pair of tweezers, and pulls out a dark and light gray, pink-streaked worm, which he lets go in the bath plug hole.
The worm makes a comeback in the form of Ursula, the housekeeper, who takes over his entire life, endearing herself to his family, to the extent; his father almost drowns him in the bath tub as she stands by watching. Most days, he’s trying to get away from Ursula’s prying eyes, and finally he manages to escape to the Hempstock Farm-where Granny Hempstock asks Ursula to return, she of course puts up a fight, but is killed by ‘varmints’ –who then want to kill the boy, because Ursula’s heart is still lodged in his foot. Lettie though, sacrifices her life, and saves him from death. Her mother wades into the pond, with Lettie’s limp body in her arms, and she is finally laid to rest in her watery abode.
While still leading the obscure life of a child, he finds a black kitten with ‘unusual eyes’, and names her ‘Ocean’. When he came to, in the present, the boy was left with no memory of his escapades - and believes Lettie migrated to Australia; as he sat , freshly arrived from his trip down memory lane, old Mrs. Hempstock pays him a visit. She tells him Lettie is still healing, not yet ready to awaken. As he leaves, he is peaceful, and his memories fade into the past.
Neil Gaiman’s wife Amanda “doesn’t really like fantasy”, so the modest 178-page turner novella for adults is a brilliant “memory meets magic” work of fiction – worth the eight year wait! The Master of Myth creates a melting pot of the supernatural, horror and allegory- the obsession we have with money and power, the deceit that permeates our lives, are underlying themes of the tale. The book has debuted at no.1 at the New York Times Best Seller List.