The novel starts with our narrator having just left a funeral. He finds himself going back to his childhood home and the farm at the end of the lane with a duckpond that was always referred to as an ocean by the youngest inhabitant, Lettie. She is a Hempstock, and there’s something special about them, they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and have powers over people’s minds amongst other things. While he is at the pond our narrator remembers a time when he was seven and their lodger was found dead in their car. This was the start of a series of strange events that involves trying to send an evil spirit back to where it came from.
The story itself feels fairly inconsequential, though there are moments that get your heart racing. It’s the bigger themes that stick with you once you reach the end. One of the main themes is the interrelation and transition between childhood and adulthood. In this it’s interesting because for the majority of the book the narrator is a child, but it is his adult self telling us about his childhood. The fragility of memory is commented on which brings in to question the reliability of his narrative, especially as we know the Hempstocks can alter memory. His maturity at the time of recounting the story will also colour the narrative, as well as leading him to ponder how events would have turned out if he’d been older.
It is interesting to see what is focused on in his memories. He seems mostly unconcerned by the suicide of their lodger, and yet gives vivid description of the food he was given by the Hempstocks. The rich, delicious food is described in great detail throughout suggesting the comforting nature of being at their farm. Perhaps this is partly why he finds himself back there again. He comments later in the story that he doesn’t miss childhood but that he does miss taking pleasure in the simple things, noticing and acknowledging when he experiences something for the first time, however seemingly insignificant. The descriptions of the food seem to reinforce this, as well as serving to contrast the welcoming atmosphere at the farm to his own home.
It seems that there’s a lack of understanding between him and his parents, and not a lot of compassion is shown to him. When his kitten dies he decides not to show how sad he is because he thinks his parents will find it bizarre, an upsetting view of the emotional environment he is being brought up in. Lettie tells him later that humans do not grow up inside, it is only their exteriors that change, but inside they are still children. They are fragile, and yearn for love and acceptance just as much as children do, a fact that would suggest there should be more empathy.
Even Ursula Monkton, the embodiment of the evil spirit that he accidentally transported home with him is alone and scared, even though she has a tough exterior. She causes his father to almost drown him and threatens him herself, but her initial concern was with trying to make people happy. The way she attempts this is by giving them money, but this only results in more problems – one husband thinking his wife has turned to prostitution when he finds a wodge of cash in her bag. A suggestion perhaps that money doesn’t solve problems but often creates more, and that humans generally don’t know what’s best for them. His father is entranced with her, and our narrator, ever conscious of the different perspectives age gives wonders whether, as an adult, he would have been intoxicated by Ursula rather than seeing her as a terrifying monster. Sometimes children are less easily fooled than adults. Before her exit he sees her vulnerability and her desire to give people what they want, teaching him a great deal about good and evil.
This is an interesting story which deals with some big issues despite feeling like a children’s book in parts, due mainly to the narrative voice being that of a child for the majority. The ancient Hempstocks have such far-reaching experience that they have a lot of wisdom to pass on, and a deep understanding of human nature. Their choice to give up some of their knowledge in order to experience humanity is a thought-provoking one. For such a slim book there’s a lot to think on – the nature of memory and the construction of personality, the battle between the child within and the expectations placed on adults, and, perhaps most poignant of all, the nature of sacrifice and the impossibility of trying to live a life worthy of it.