Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneI wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult. Today they gave me comfort of a kind. I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.

"Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy. Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what. A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark." 

God, The Ocean at the End of the Lane was beautiful. It is a fairy tale of the best kind, as Erin Morgenstern says, "soaked in myth and memory and salt water." Neil Gaiman is a master, and this one was in some respects better than Stardust which I loved too. I loved Stardust for its fairy tale elements and the battle of Good and Evil and the writing. All of these things were present and better in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It's well worth $26 even though it's a slim book. 

All of the events that the nameless narrator recalls are told through the eyes of a younger child; he sees everything simply and clearly at the age of seven. So many strange things are happening, but they don't seem at all odd to him. Gradually the memories come flooding back as the middle-aged man sits by the duck pond which Lettie called the ocean. 

I certainly wasn't expecting The Ocean at the End of the Lane to be so brilliant, but it was. It was also, of course, really disturbing, particularly the very first nightmare that the main character has, choking on coins. It was quite scary, and I actually had to put the book down for a second before I continued on. Ursula Monkton was also the scariest and most evil creation ever; I loathed her, although I didn't really understand what she was doing as the housekeeper. 

The two Hempstocks were very fascinating. The older one can even see electrons, not a power witches in traditional fairy tales normally have. But I suppose traditionally, witches can see things normal people can't, and make predictions; in this case, Gaiman just takes it a bit farther. The character of Lettie was really interesting too; she's eleven, and yet she's clearly so much older than that. She knows so much about everything. 

Gaiman's writing is, as usual, utterly gorgeous. There's lush description, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, despite being short, is a very rich novel. I read it in maybe two sittings all in one day. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is marketed for adults, but it could just as easily be young adult; however, adults are probably in more of a position to enjoy it, so I'm not really the best person to appreciate this novel. However, I still really, really loved it. Probably later I'll love it more.

My only criticism of the book was this: that parts of it didn't actually make much sense. Why was the thing that called itself Ursula Monkton in the world in the first place? It was explained a little bit, but not enough for my tastes. There could have been more background information. It was still marvelous though.

Some favorite quotes: "'That's the trouble with living things. Don't last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together...'" (pg. 45).

"I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were." (pg. 53). This reminded me of Erin Morgenstern's blurb of the book: "I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane in one sitting. It is soaked in myth and memory and salt water and it is so, so lovely. It feels as if it was always there, somewhere in the story-stuff of the universe." It just is, according to her, just like the myths that the narrator is referring to.

Like Erin Morgenstern, I read the book in basically one sitting and was thoroughly immersed in the world. That doesn't happen that often. There are more quotes that I could include, but I would recommend that you just read this excellent dark fantasy novel if it sounds interesting. 

You can read other reviews here and here.

178 pages.

Rating: *****

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