Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Ocean at the end of the Lane, a review...

I saw the size of Neil Gaiman's new book, The Ocean at the end of the Lane, and thought it would be an easy read. Because of its size, I decided to get it in audiobook format (also, Gaiman voiced the edition I got). And, I had just finished reading Holes, a book that also has a young protagonist. This way, I could compare techniques.

It turned out to be a wise and enjoyable decision.

No one ever read to me when I was a small child, but I got hints of what I was missing while listening to this audiobook. I'm familiar with Gaiman's work; I loved his "Sandman" series (like many, many others).

Title: The Ocean at the end of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy / Urban Myth

Premise: A middle-aged man returns to his childhood town and rediscovers a forgotten adventure from his youth that involved magic, otherworldly creatures, and a young woman named Lettie Hempstock.

What didn't work for me:

Very few things didn't jive with me while reading (listening) to this novel. For one thing, Gaiman constantly reminds the reader that his protagonist is "just a boy" or "seven years old." Really, I got that the first time you said it Neil. There was no need to repeat it every chapter (no exaggeration). After a while, I started to laugh at that because it reminded me of "The Wonder Years" and the way the narrator always declared, "And then, it happened..." in every episode. It always happened to Kevin once an episode, this important event.

The reason Gaiman does it so much is to put some emotional emphasis on the situation. For example, when the 7-year-old protagonist sees his father having sexual intercourse with another woman, he doesn't understand it even while he describes the act in terms that he knows: Father was hugging the woman from behind and kissing her, etc. Of course, the older adult protagonist understands what is going on, but back then, "he [was] just a boy of 7."

For my taste, doing it less would have been more potent.

What worked for me:

I think if someone else had written this book they would have been tempted to pile on a hundred more pages. But being just shy of two hundred pages works well for this book. Mr. Gaiman presents a succinct and controlled text, without needless secondary plots or excessive description; I'm thinking of The Night Circus in particular. Gaiman's book has a fast paced plot that doesn't feel hurried.

And honestly, I'm looking at the girth of some of the books I have to read (including The Cuckoo's Calling) and they're intimidating.

The other element of this novel that worked for me was the mythical tone throughout. This is a fantasy that takes place in modern times, but it feels older, like it could easily be a medieval work. Gaiman makes use of what I can only call magic without the cliches of modern Fantasies (Urban Fantasies). There are few recognizable tropes here, like bindings, but aside from that, the world and its creatures is the brainchild of the author.

Yet, these strange occurrences and practices come wrapped in a contemporary setting. The prologue and epilogue are brief, but potent. What the characters reveal about the protagonist at the end is very compelling and just sad.

It is rare and refreshing to come across this type of Contemporary Fantasy today, an irony since this seems to be the generation of contemporary fantasies.

Last but not least, what worked for me is the way Gaiman plays with the formula of this type of novel. This is not the first novel I've read where the protagonist, as an adult, looks back at some period of his/her life that was awe-inspiring and meaningful. In The Ocean at the end of the Lane, Gaiman's protagonist looks back but not to reminisce. The memories are so terrifying that he either has blocked them or they have been blocked for him using supernatural means. This leads the adult protagonist to question the validity of living.

In the end, he's not asking whether his life was worthwhile. The protagonist questions whether living at all was worthwhile; his current miseries make him question the worth of living.


The main character of this book recounts memories, which have been altered, with a sort of dread that fools you. At first I thought he was going to recount events that he was wistful about (as many books that have similar framing devices do). But it feels like he wants to remember these events because they are somehow more horrific than what his life has become.

And so, a short review for a short book. It's very enjoyable.

If you're a fan of Neil Gaiman you'll automatically pick up on his wit and bits of wisdom. This one is not too heavy on either (Anansi Boys is a little heavy on the comedy).