Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

June 25, 2013 1:00 pm

Neil Gaiman, writer extraordinaire with more awards to his name than the British Library has books, released a new novel earlier this week. This new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is unlike any novel of his that has preceded it – it’s much more personal, much more intimate. It doesn’t concern itself with the fate of the universe; it’s just a story about a man remembering when he was a boy. I’ve been a Neil Gaiman fan for approximately four and a half years now: not as long as some, I admit, but I like to think that I have spent enough time contemplating the Gaimanverse where I think I should be considered something of an authority on the subject. And in my unofficial capacity of (temporary) authority, I have to say that although The Ocean at the End of the Lane wasn’t at all what I expected, I quickly fell in love with it nonetheless.

The main narrative follows a man (who we will later know to be) named George as he recounts a repressed childhood memory that took place in 1960’s Sussex. In typical Gaiman fashion nothing is as it seems when primordial forces quickly involved, lead to a series of events which itself leads to a thought provoking climax. The Ocean at the End of the Lane does not have a ‘classical’ fantasy ending, but regardless it is one that is satisfying and exactly what the novel needed.

What set this book apart from other Neil Gaiman novels for me was how the story was presented. In most of Gaiman’s novels, the plot takes place over a period of weeks, or even months, The Ocean At the End of the Lane however happens over only a couple of days under a framing device which happens over a single afternoon. In this respect it is similar to Gaiman’s 1996 effort Neverwhere, which could be considered a sort of loose sequel to this story in terms of theme. It quickly becomes apparent that the main theme of the novel is not, as the blurb at the back claims, about childhood, but rather growing up – it’s concentrating on one special memory and living that memory again, from start to finish for a little while. Ultimately The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about a man looking back at the magic, the loneliness and the uncertainty of his own childhood and trying to recapture it, trying to ‘regrow his heart’.

As many people (including the authors wife – Mrs Amanda Gaiman Palmer) have said this is Gaiman’s most private book (almost autobiographical, if the events of the novel happened in this order) and it is clear where Gaiman has drawn upon his own experiences for the novel, such as the descriptions and geography of rural Sussex, the relationship between George and his little sister (whose real life counterpart, Lizzy Calcioli, is thanked in the acknowledgements for encouragement and the procurement of old photographs) and George’s nature as a book loving, precocious seven year old. This, moulded with Gaiman’s trademark use of original and believable creatures paints an almost magical realist world in which the fantastic may not be immediately noticeable but still able to infiltrate our lives whenever we are willing to let it.

The main characters, as befitting their status as receptacles for traits stolen from people who Gaiman’s knew in his own childhood, are all believable to a tee, with enough embellishments so that we can believe even the most outlandish thing that these characters do. My favorite of the novel’s characters would have to be Lettie Hempstock: youngest of the Hempstock women and George’s guide in this new world that he has accidentally walked into,  Lettie is the latest of Gaiman’s strong female characters who guide the more inexperienced male character into this world. This characterization is a breath of fresh air in a genre that is all too often littered with damsels in distress. As a conduit for the ‘adult world’ Lettie is a voice of reason for George and a sure source of strength – and ultimately the only character, throughout the novel, there for George all the way from start to finish.

Contrast with Lettie Hempstock is Ursula Monkton. Ursula is very much an opposite of Lettie: where Lettie simply wishes to help George and keep him safe, Ursula merely wishes to serve discord and do him harm. This is emphasized by their chief weapons: for Ursula it is a bath full of cold water, for Lettie it is the titular ocean. These two characters are very similar, and almost binary opposites, however their chief difference comes from one of the novel’s central themes: humility. Where Lettie is all too ready to accept help from the elder Hempstock women when she needs it,  Ursula is full of pride and refuses to accept a way out. Ultimately this leads to her downfall at the hands of the novel’s true antagonistic force. This binary opposition is emphasized by the relationships between George and Lettie, & George’s Father and Ursula. Ursula is a manipulator who will twist things so that she gets what she wants regardless of the consequences, whereas Lettie is very much a selfless character when it comes to her relationship with her young charge. Her power as a villain is truly chilling, especially when she makes George’s father act out in ways that he would never have done otherwise. As a villain Ursula works very well – she’s powerful, unknowable, Machiavellian and eerily beautiful. She’s the teacher that hated you at school, but when you told your parents they’d never believe it. 

I admit that I was a little skeptical that a young boy could be as eloquent and as knowledgeable as George is at some points of the novel however I quickly reminded myself that this little boy is of course Gaiman’s stand in – a man who knew before he was ten that the biblical Adam had three wives. I didn’t know that until I was fifteen.

The writing style is a step away from what we’ve seen before from Gaiman. The prose is strong, yet elegant; in this novel Gaiman eschews the long complex sentences made up of subordinated clauses that he has been known for in the past. Furthermore he has experimented with the first person narration in this book. When these two are considered in tandem it is clear that the effect of this, is that the novel’s writing style is both concise and honest yet manages to leaves enough open to interpretation in terms of description for imagination to flourish. It is sometimes evocative of children’s writing, or writing aimed at children, and yet is as complex as any literary classic, with adult situations. If I have one complaint about the writing style it is that Gaiman sometimes indulges in phonetic speech when writing dialogue; I have never liked phonetic writing, to me it doesn’t really add anything and it’s just distracting. Fortunately this doesn’t come up often but when it does it is very noticeable.

In summary I truly believe that Neil Gaiman has written what is quite possibly the finest story of his career. The characters are enjoyable (and sometimes terrible), the writing is stylishly clever, the descriptions vivid and the narrative fresh, with enough twist and turn to keep the reader entranced to the very last full stop.

If you only read one book this week, make it The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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