Friday, 2 May 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

I had waited and waited excitedly for this to come out in paperback for ages. Now that I've read it, I'm not sure what to make of it. I loved Stardust and The Graveyard Book, so I'm not new to Gaiman, though I have yet to attempt any of his chunkier offerings. TOATEOTL has all of his usual hallmarks; a clash between the real world and the fantastical, horrific monsters, the idea that childhood is actually a bit terrifying, a battle between good and evil and an unlikely but rock solid friendship between a male and female protagonist. His books always make the reader feel like magic is woven into the fabric of the real world so carefully but unless you are looking for it or are open minded enough to expect to see it, it will always be invisible.

The narrator, who's name is not given, returns to his hometown to attend the funeral of a relative. Whilst in the area, he visits his old home's location, the house itself long since demolished. He continues down the lane to the farm that he remembers at the bottom, and the pond that his only real childhood friend Lettie Hempstock (the oldest 11 year old in the world) swore was an ocean. Sitting by the side of the pond/ocean, he recalls a story that he thought he had forgotten, about worms, flappy monsters made of cloth, an evil au pere that took over his family and a trio of the most remarkable women that he had ever met. Gaiman is unbeatable when it comes to child narrators- it's incredible how accurately he inhabits the skin of children. His writing is so convincing that when he describes a child's unwavering belief in things in traits like loyalty and courage, it resonates with even the most cynical of adults. Such faith is lost by then.

At times this books is a bit uncomfortable- the misery of the narrators childhood is kind of heartbreaking, but this is Gaiman's writing at its best. The boy hates being a child, the absolute lack of voice and power cripples him. Uncaring parents, a mean sister, friends only in books and whole load of weirdness going down in the woods. He has the fears and feeling of responsibility of an adult, but the imagination and (lack of) resources of a child. Endless scope for terror and impotence. In some ways Ocean is an allegorical novel about how a child views the adult world and its sneaky adult complexities and inconsistencies.

The prose is wonderful as usual, characteristically fantastical and the novel features some brilliant, tough characters, but ultimately it failed to make any lasting impression on me. I loved the access that the author provided to the thoughts and fears of the narrator, it's easily what carries the novel beyond a simple series of events. I just didn't feel drawn into the book's reality and it didn't really stay with me once I put it down. I think this just wasn't the one for me, so it's on to American Gods next!

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