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Monday, June 17, 2013

Review: 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane'

June 2013
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062255655

There are times when being a grown-up is not all it's cracked up to be. When to be able to take a step out of time to go back in time would be a gift. To see where it all went wrong, or could have gone wrong. To remember.

That's part of what happens in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the first novel for adults that Neil Gaiman has written in several years. Whether classified as fantasy, fable, horror, or magic realism, the slim novel (which, really, is a novella at 178 pages) is a literary look back to a time the narrator doesn't seem to recall. And then he does.

The middle-aged man, an unnamed narrator, takes a drive after a funeral in the part of England where he grew up. Seemingly without meaning to, he ends up at the end of the lane. It's where the Hempstock farm is. Where Old Mrs. Hempstock, her daughter Ginnie and her granddaughter Lettie lived. The place where, as a seven-year-old boy, the narrator nearly lost his world.

He is a lonely child. The flashback that takes up most of the book begins with no one coming to his seventh birthday party. He doesn't feel all that bad about it because well, he's got something better. "Books were safer than other people anyway."

Fantastical things happen to the seven-year-old boy after he goes on a jaunt with Lettie, who seems to be about 11 years old. He tries to handle things himself but things soon get way out of hand. It takes the help of the Hempstocks to try to make the world right again after things come that should never have been let in. Sort of like when a child discovers things he believed in like Santa are not real, or things like his parents' marriage cannot last.

The boy's reactions, and the way the grown-up man looks back at how he felt as a boy, make this a far more serious work than an entertainment with fantastical elements. When things first begin to go wrong, the boy doesn't even think of going to his parents, who he loves, for help.

I do not know why I did not ask an adult about it. I do not remember asking adults about anything, except as a last resort. That was the year I dug out a wart from my knee with a penknife, discovering how deeply I could cut before it hurt, and what the roots of a wart looked like.

As with another passage later on, this statement works on both the surface level and as a comment on what the narrator will have to do when he tries to make things right. The later passage is a brilliant comment on what a once clear-eyed child sees as a grown-up:

If the shadows were still there I could no longer perceive them; or rather, the whole world had become shadows.

When the narrator grows up, he creates art of some kind (it's not detailed). When having to talk to strangers and he's asked about it, he says:

... (doing fine, thank you, I would say, never knowing how to talk about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it. I make art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all.).

That's what creating art is like. It's certainly what any type of creative writing is like. And when anyone tries to create art, it should not be pigeonholed the way art so often is these days. Look at the occasional sniping between lovers of certain kinds of fiction. But that's not how Gaiman looks at it. In an interview with NPR, he said:

That's part of the job, I think ... when I was growing up, some of my favorite writers, the people I respected the most, were the ones who did everything, you know. A good writer should be able to write comedic work that made you laugh, and scary stuff that made you scared, and fantasy or science fiction that imbued you with a sense of wonder, and mainstream journalism that gave you clear and concise information in a way that you wanted it. It always seemed to me that that was what a writer should do. You have all these amazing tools; it's up to you what kinds of tunes you play on them, and you want to play all the tunes. As I grew older, I was fascinated to realize that actually, society to some extent frowns on those of us who like messing about in an awful lot of different sandboxes. From my perspective, I just love being able to do everything. I think a good writer should be able to do everything.

Gaiman uses his tools in The Ocean at the End of the Lane to tell a story that started with the real-life memory of a man who died in a car at the end of the lane where he grew up. The story has much in common with his brilliant children's novel, Coraline, in which the world is not always steady, creatures from older places want to come in to play and adults cannot be relied upon. Searching for home, or to make something else go home, are at the heart of both stories. And, like Murakami, there are trustworthy cats in both books. This story is one that won't be up for the Newbery children's literature award, which Gaiman won with The Graveyard Book (this is definitely a book for adults with horrific ideas about a father's power and weaknesses). But The Ocean at the End of the Lane should win everything it is eligible to win; it's that good.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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