I've just finished reading Michael Ende's The Neverending Story and was flabbergasted by how good it is. How is it that nobody has ever stopped me, grabbed me by the lapels, and demanded to know why I haven't read it since I was a kid? It is the most psychologically interesting (Freud would have been proud of it), imaginative (it puts the derivative shite pumped out under the 'Young Adult' category nowadays to shame), and moving (it had me in tears at the end) childrens' book I have read....well, ever.
What I was impressed most with about the story is just how subtly and carefully Ende challenges the reader's assumptions about what has come before, in a way that seems totally consistent and believable even when turning on a sixpence. For instance, there is so much going on, thematically, in the second half of the book that you don't realise, until the very end, that much of what has been going on can be explained by the fact that Bastian is grieving for his lost mother and is, basically, in need of love. Ende never says as much and Bastian barely even thinks about his parents during the course of the novel, but then suddenly in the final chapters he does, and the entire story changes its complection completely. Yet Ende makes this feel totally genuine - not a curve ball in the slightest. All of Bastian's actions make sense when seen through that lens. The book has a pattern of doing this, even in the smallest incidents - my favourite being the transformation of the achari into the shlamoofs, which is set up one way and then shifts in the reader's mind again and again as the story progresses.
The next most impressive thing about it is the refreshing lack of sentimentality in it. I absolutely loved the reunion scene between Atreyu and Bastian at the end. Ende resists all urges to sentimentalise the scene with hugs, requests for forgiveness, etc. Instead the two boys just look at each other. That's enough. All is forgiven, and neither needs to say it. Totally realistic, totally believable when it comes to how human beings actually behave. All of the book is like that. Not over dramatic, no Hollywoodisms.
And the third most impressive thing about it is just how much it makes you think. It's been a long, long time since I've read a book that has been such food for thought. As a result of reading it I've ruminated over the nature of the imagination, why fiction exists, what friendship is, what it means to grow up from a boy into a man, the nature of memories, the relationship betwen creativity and lying, you name it. I've also got a lot of vignettes which are really quite profound and which I'll be thinking over for a long time: why did Xayide's creations kill her - or did she kill herself? Was Bastian right to transform the achari? Was he right to give his mule what her heart desired? What is so tempting about The Nothing? What is the nature of Gmork?
It is a stunningly good book, and that rarest of rare things: a fantasy novel which I'm sure I'll go back to again and again. Read it.