The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
|Book Name:||The Ocean at the End of the Lane|
|Publisher(s):||William Morrow (US) Headline (UK)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Horror / Fairy Tale|
|Release Date:||June 18, 2013|
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fairy tale about a boy who stumbles into a mystical world interwoven with his own. There are villains and heroes yet no one character in the cast of six is decidedly good or evil. The characters are described with emotions and desires that – in Neil Gaiman’s subtle manner – humanize them. We have a touch of sympathy for the antagonists, all while Neil Gaiman’s terse, unblinking prose makes our skin crawl at the misfortunes and injustice they cause.
The viewpoint character’s misfortunes begin small and common then grow into a plot that involves his mystical neighbors, the Hempstocks. The three Hempstock women – Lettie, Ginnie, and Old Mrs. Hempstock – live on their family land, as they have for millennia. Neil Gaiman transitions between the ordinary and mystical without bells and whistles. The Hempstocks have knowledge and magic (but nothing so common as “spells”) that is only vaguely explained. They simply exist. No justification or explanation is required and none are given. Best of all, there’s nothing particularly grand about the three magical women besides their stubbornness, empathy, and pragmatism – all of which are human traits.
The narrator falls through the rabbit hole and into the Hempstock’s universe, which stretches before and beyond the Big Bang and hosts “fleas” and “vermin,” nicknames given to potentially antagonistic beings. There are no “gods,” “fae,” “demons,” or any name that will fit neatly into your understanding of fantasy. The story, characters, and writing do not match mainstream patterns, which is why many consider Neil Gaiman’s body of work to be a genre of its own. There are, however, patterns linking this book to his past achievements, notably to American Gods and Coraline.
If you’ve read one of Neil Gaiman’s other books – especially American Gods – you’ll find his depiction of the mystical comfortably familiar. While all of his books could take place in the “same universe,” so to speak, The Ocean at the End of the Lane relies even less upon traditional myths and fairy tales. The magical elements are left up to interpretation, free from definitions or allusions that would dampen the power of imagination. Think of Mr. Wednesday from American Gods, for example, then forget that he’s Odin. That’s how the Hempstocks are portrayed. In fact, Neil Gaiman writes the magical and otherworldly as seamlessly natural, and the Hempstocks as far more compelling than the main character.
Like Shadow in American Gods (and Bella in Twilight), the viewpoint character serves simply to provide a window into the world of the Hempstocks – a window that is made all the more clear by a first-person perspective. “We” is a powerful word and Neil Gaiman is a tight writer who doesn’t misuse it or miss an opportunity. The boy – nameless throughout – is like a pair of well-fitting pants that the reader can adventure and romp around the Hempstock’s property in. He is relatable and guides us through the story. Lettie and Old Mrs. Hempstock are lovely and charming, but in a way that children are not expected to understand. While we, as adults, can be charmed or angered by the events of the story, the viewpoint character remains legitimately malleable and sympathetic within his seven year-old understanding; a one-size-fits-all pair of pants. This “windowpane” technique is, perhaps, an indication that the viewpoint characters in Gaiman’s books may become noticeably formulaic.
Ginnie Hempstock, the kitten, and the narrator’s sister are also distant, and so much so that the reader has nothing to build sympathy upon. Ginnie seems to exist simply to bridge the generation gap between Old Mrs. Hempstock and Lettie. I suspect that Neil Gaiman wanted an old woman and a little girl, but also a sense of family, and the Hempstocks to number three, so he threw in Ginnie and her big boots as a means to an end. The kitten is similarly awkward and I wonder if Neil Gaiman was being so heavy handed with its purpose that it comes full circle and seems extremely clever. The relationship between the narrator and his father is also oddly truncated and is mostly told, rather than shown. As a reader I knew that, in theory, I should have felt something as their relationship changed, but my heart wasn’t in it.
The Ocean at the End of the Land shows that Neil Gaiman still has the gift of capturing a child’s perspective and putting it on paper in stark realism. The injustice and helplessness felt by every child living in an adult world is rekindled through this story, as is the romantic love for the pure and righteous world of myths and magic. Sadly, the book is barely shy of 200 pages. The story is short and sweet and I’m already itching for the next Gaiman book, which will hopefully give readers a bit more to sink into.