Reviewed by Jeanne
The subtitle to this book is “A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds,” and that does give the reader a hint about this story. It’s a bit hard to categorize, but the same could be said of much of Gaiman’s work. It began life as a story to be read aloud at a festival at the Sydney Opera House, complete with art and music; won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette as text, and now is a book with many and various pictures: paintings, collage, cartoon boxes with dialog, a bit of everything—pictures of all kinds, indeed. There is also much darkness of all sorts.
The story is told in first person by a diminutive Scotsman who has spent a decade searching for a man by the name of Calum MacInnes. As the story opens, he is asking MacInnes to be his guide to a certain cave in the Misty Isles, a legendary cave, which is said to contain gold. . . and something else. Both men are wary, especially MacInnes, but the desire to obtain a goal is stronger than any doubts and they set off on a perilous journey.
Gaiman has the knack of writing in such a way that you feel you’re reading an ancient story, one passed down through generations. There’s also the sense that you’re not getting the full unvarnished story. Things are held back and left unsaid. It’s up to the reader to piece it all together. There’s a definite layer of darkness all through the tale along with vivid descriptions of the winds and cold and the wild terrain that made me want to put on a jacket or at least turn up my collar. The writing itself is beautiful and evocative—nobody spins a tale quite like Gaiman—and the ending took my breath away. I didn’t like this book, I thought.
And yet I go back to it again and again, reading passages to see how he shaped the story, and understanding the main character more and more. I can’t help but wonder, though, if I would have seen it differently without the illustrations. I almost think I would have appreciated it more because I would have internalized and admired the words more from the start. And yet certain of the illustrations speak very strongly and deeply. The cover is absolutely perfect.
This is a story to raise the hair on your neck, to make you weep, and to make you empathize. It’s one of those rare tales that will walk beside you in the dark but not menace you. It’s a deeply human tale, told by a master.