[Review] - The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, By Neil Gaiman

"Lettie Hempstock's ocean. I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything."

The Ocean at the End of the Lane was not the novel I was expecting. Though to hear Neil Gaiman tell it, it wasn't the novel he was expecting either. Billed as his first book intended for adults since Anansi Boys, I should have known not to have any expectations from Gaiman, as each of his works brings with it its own standards, its own parameters. That being said, and with a prereading ignorance about any aspect of the novel, I was not expecting the end result, in any way. And that so wasn't a bad thing. In a time when so much media is mass produced, to be genuinely surprised, and be genuinely moved by something, is a rare treat.

Hit the jump for the review, which managed to avoid any major spoilers.

Like many of Gaiman's works, Ocean began life as a short story, the tale of an opal miner who steals a car and commits suicide. And that seed still exists as the precipitating event in the sequence that is Ocean. It just grew a bit bigger then all that. Not much bigger, and that was the first surprise the book had in store. At 181 pages in hardcover, it is Gaiman's shortest non-children's book, what would probably be better classed as a novella, if anyone used that term anymore. The brevity doesn't diminish things any, the opposite actually. The story is exactly as long as it needs to be, without unnecessary flourish or exposition. The tale that is told is told as it should be, in Gaiman's own way.

The plot centres around an unnamed 7 year old boy, and now is as good a time to say that the novel is not autobiographical. And not just because it deals with fantasy and vaguely faerie issues in that way that Gaiman does, that means you never really feel like you're reading a fantasy, just something extraordinary that is outside your realm of experience. However, you can be forgiven for thinking that the story bares a resemblance to Gaiman himself if you know anything of Gaiman's life (or have perused his Wikipedia page). Even his sisters, apparently, were given to thinking that Gaiman had set out to write about his own childhood, and managed to get things wonderfully wrong. But the story of an unnamed 7 year old boy, the dead opal miner, and the three Hempstock women who live at the farm at the end of the lane is as mostly fictional as anything Gaiman has ever written.

The death of the opal miner lets something through, something that the narrator is witness to, and something the Hempstocks, the youngest of which is 11 year old Lettie, are equipped to handle. Except, in trying to put the thing back where it came from only allows it to come out even more. Soon, the narrator finds his life plagued by fortune and grief, as he and Lettie try to fix their mistakes. This is a general and vague overview of the plot, but one of the charms of the books is how general and vague it is. Gaiman spent no extra time on description, boiling things down to as nondescript as possible, to allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Like the absence of a name for that narrator, or a framing device when that narrator is older and coming from some sort of gathering, hinted to be a funeral, though it is never confirmed nor is it said who it is for. The entire book functions this way, suggesting things to the reader, and allowing them to make the inferences they need to push the narrative forward. Because of it's length, I found myself devoting time to rereading passages at length, knowing I'd have the extra time normally spent on the rest of the book. It was a good move, because while it can be a "single sitting" novel, it shouldn't be. The imagination needs time to work its way around these words, and it's best to take it slow.

The fantasy is presented in such a way that the metaphor bleeds into the reality, and the two are easily confused for each other. The character of Ursula Monkton, always referred to in full (and in opposition to the narrator's own lack of identity), isn't so much a villain as she is a perception. And her actions have to be viewed through the lens of a 7 year old who is suffering from what could be considered shock. The Hempstock women too, are presented throughout the entirety of a novel in the way that a small child would view a close knit family, and the effect that memory can have on perception. The book presents the events both ways, the way an adult would look at things, through the narrator as an adult, and as a child would look at them, and the reader is allowed to consider both, instead of being directed one way or the other. It is sort of like Calvin and Hobbes in that respect, or what I quoted Peter Morgan last week as calling "truth versus accuracy." Just because that was the way something was does not necessarily mean that was the way it happened.

I would say that Ocean makes for an excellent companion to The Graveyard Book, Gaiman's previous novel which won so many awards for children's literature. They share common themes, the effects that a death can have on a young child, and the sort of characters that step up to help those children out. Ocean feels much more personal though, and that is probably why it was marketed as being for adults, though there isn't any reason I should see that a child who likes Gaiman should read Ocean as well. There is an intimacy behind the words. Unlike Graveyard, which was a story told about a child, Ocean is a story told by a child, looked back upon when the child has grown. It feels like a confession, and that is where the feeling of intimacy comes from. This is perhaps the most emotional work Gaiman has ever produced.

As I read the book, I was struck my who poetic the prose was, how fluid and purposeful the words were, which you see so much more in poetry then in novels. It is the sort of book that will reach the height of its potential spoken aloud, in audio format, or read by Gaiman on tour. The words are not content to lie on the page, and often as I was making my way through, I found myself saying them out loud to myself. It is a book to be said, not read, ideally, and if you have someone to read it to, I suggest you do. And if you don't, don't worry. I'll work just as well for you too.

Also, there are giant crows.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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