Neil Gaiman has gone and done it again. I thought I was finished being impressed with him after I finished Fragile Things. Apparently, I was wrong…like really, really wrong. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about growing up, wanting to keep some of that childlike wonder, sacrifice, human nature, friendship and family. It is about … life. To begin, there’s a pond that’s really an ocean, a farmhouse where the moon is always full on one side, a very “normal” type of family, and the Hemstocks.
The storytelling, oh my gosh, the storytelling in this book. You just get drawn in and you don’t want to leave. (Well actually in some of spectacularly creeptastic parts you REALLY want to leave, but you can’t because you absolutely have to know what’s going to happen because the protagonist is seven….SEVEN, and what seven year old actually does what you expect?) However you don’t leave, because well, you’re reading Neil Gaiman. If he has a book that doesn’t leave you, at some point, distinctly unsettled and/or deep in thought about something…well….I haven’t found it yet. (Don’t worry. I’ll keep reading, just in case.)
Me, I like a good fantasy book, so I’m used to suspending reality, for a while, to live in the world the authors create for me. Usually, I don’t think about the whys or wherefores so much. I’ve started paying attention though. Who better than Mr. Neil Gaiman to pay attention to WHY I’m willing to believe that his world is THE world for a while? The stories I like the best these days are the ones that take the world we live in and twist it just a bit. Think American Gods here, a whole different world layered over our own, sometimes one that “normal” people never see. Kim Harrison, with the alternate world that changed because of tomatoes. Laurell K. Hamilton’s St. Louis where vampires have been given the same rights as humans by the Supreme Court. They make you think about possibilities long after the book is closed, and real life has intruded again. The magic of “what if”.
The protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a seven year old boy. (I may have mentioned that earlier…once or twice.) Children are amazing little people, aren’t they? Watching them learn about the world is an experience, wonderful, hilarious, and just plain weird in turns…and sometimes all at once. Everything is … data. (Have you ever used a…socially unacceptable for a two-year-old word…in front of a two-year-old? They zoom in on that thing like a heat seeking missile, and they think this is the best word they have ever heard. It is repeated incessantly…in front of the most inappropriate people…like the pastor, their grandparents, or your boss? Let me tell you about The List sometime. My niece and nephew wanted to have a shirt printed for me that said “That’s on The List”) Each bit of information they absorb informs them of what the world is, and I think what makes this book and this particular twist on the world so believable. This childhood ability to adapt a viewpoint of the world, based on new experience. Some things are still fluid, at seven. Our protagonist isn’t a little kid anymore, but he doesn’t struggle as much as an adult against a set idea of what is “supposed to be” either. He sees some pretty wild and crazy stuff, but his friend is there. She isn’t scared, so it’s okay. There are some things our protagonist is certain are absolute truths, (I mean, I know a few seven year olds who are convinced they know EVERYTHING, don’t you?),but even these get shaken a bit. Eventually, he’s just taking things as they come, rolling with the punches… it is all just data. Your friend shows you an orange sky? Weird, but it is right there in front of you so, okay. Adults struggle more to accept sweeping alterations to their perception of the way things really are.
The fantastic events that happen in The Ocean at the End of the Lane are not unbelievable because the character believes. The fantastic is in turns disturbing, creepy, unsettling, and sometimes beautiful. The truly scary parts, for me, came from the purely human. It gave me goosebumps. It still gives me goosebumps. It takes some of those vital absolutes our protagonist has and … shakes them up, makes them less certain. One of his absolutes turned to vapor. Just. Like. That.
During my recent opportunity to attending a reading and book signing, where I got my very own copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane signed, I discovered that Neil Gaiman wrote this novel by accident. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, this started out to be a short story for his wife, Amanda Palmer. Then it became a novelette. As it became longer, he said that he resigned himself to it being a novella. Finally, he says he had to send an email saying that he had accidentally written a novel. Maybe this is what they mean by “happy accidents.”
For all this is an “accidental” novel, there isn’t a wasted word in this beauty. It is filled to the brim with everything that you love about reading Neil Gaiman. I found no passages, paragraphs, scenes or even sentences that dragged. Everything has weight here. Everything has meaning.
It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn’t very big.
Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old county.
Her mother said that Lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk.
Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country.
She said the really old country had blown up.
‘Til Next Time,