Neil Gaiman is one of the most interesting storytellers of our time. From his award winning Sandman comic book series to his award winning novels like American Gods he has shown an amazing ability to look beneath the surface and give us a dream like experience of reality. His newest book The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. It is often hard to tell what is real and what is a dream. Or is it all a dream?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, at one level, the story of the narrator as a seven year old boy. The novel begins as the narrator is taking a drive down memory lane after a funeral. He drives past his childhood home and then finds himself going to the home of a childhood friend. He goes around to the back and sits down. As he sits he begins to remember the events that took place when he was seven. The seven year old boy is very familiar to me. At one level he is a reconstruction of Neil Gaiman as a child. I see myself in the boy as well. I too found my friends in books and preferred their company to that of other children. Like the narrator and the author some of the first books I remember are the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis.
The world of this seven year old is turned upside down when the man who is renting a room in their house commits suicide. This suicide wakes up something primordial. At the scene of the suicide the narrator meets Lettie Hempstock. At first Lettie seems to be nothing more than an eleven year old girl living with her mother and grandmother. These three women are far from normal. They are something larger and more powerful. By accident the narrator lets a great evil through into our world. Now, with the help of the Hempstock women he has to try and contain this evil and send it back where it came from.
This is more than just a story of childhood fantasy. It is the story of good against evil. Of powers beyond our control invading our world and trying to turn it upside down. It is the outside world trying to rob the innocence of children. It is the story of losing something, of something being taken as we grow older. Actually it is a story of childhood fantasy. It’s not the awakening to evil, it is the realization of good. Gaiman lists G. K. Chesterton as one of his childhood influences. Perhaps this quote from Chesterton’s essay “Red Angel” would help illuminate this book:
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
This is an amazing book. I am not sure that it would be appropriate for small children. I say I am not sure, not because it is frightening. I think that this book is more than that. I think that this book is for those who need to find the belief in something bigger than themselves.
When it comes to the Hempstocks, picking a favorite would be like trying to pick a favorite child or kitten. You just don't try, though you might sit and marvel at how they differ from one another or how much they are alike.
Sometimes other readers bring a wonderful new aspect to a story. [Try Christina Pickles' reading of "Chivalry" from Selected Shorts or Lenny Henry's reading of "Anansi Boys."] But there are times when Neil is the best one to read his stories. His voice is comforting and gentle, even when the character he's reading is being matter-of-fact or coming to terrible realizations.
It's a funny thing to say that one story or another is more personal to an author. Any story well made is very much its authors, no matter how fantastic and far from autobiographical. This time it seems to be more intimate; that while this isn't autobiographical there's a lot of Neil's own character poured into this narrator.
I'm nearly fifty years old and I don't remember being scared by a book since I was very young. I've been anxious, enthralled, aching with suspense, burning with anticipation, or worried for a character I really liked, but never actually scared. Until this one.
This book scared me. Not because the images of the story felt threatening, but because it made me stop in a public place, look around me, and realize in a vivid way that the world is not always a good place.
It's in a good way—a constructive way. The very best way, because it shares a bit of wisdom and puts you on your guard against it. It's the same kind of fear as you might have of dragons, if you were afraid of dragons, and if you'd also heard Neil tell you G. K. Chesterton's ideas about how dragons can be beaten.
There are no dragons in this book. Not exactly. But maybe more horrible than dragons are the smallest terrors; the almost innocent ones.
There are people who like some of Neil Gaiman's works more than others. Not because the stories are better or worse, but because they're about different sorts of things. Some lean more towards "American Gods" while others are more eager for "Stardust." Still others will like Neil's episodes of "Doctor Who" best, and some will have complete collections of "Sandman" or know by heart which short stories are in which of his collections. [It's hard to think of any authors who have been as successfully prolific in so many different ways.]
What's special about "Ocean at the End of the Lane" is that it will be a book which is best loved by all the different kinds of Neil Gaiman fans. It has the essence that is the best of all his forms, yet is entirely new and takes us to wonderful new places. His craft is the best it has ever been.
"For whatever we lose (a you or a me) It's always ourselves we find in the sea." E.E. Cummings
Old Mrs. Hempstock. She would be a lot of fun, I think.
Letty - immutable and steadfast, but quick to laugh with a warm hand to hold. The best friend every child should have.
This book is beautiful and devastating all at once. At first I thought it was going to be the lush, delicious blanket of warmth Neil Gaiman has served up so well in the past, like in The Graveyard Book. But this is no children's book, not in the least. At one point I found myself shouting at the book in anger; at another point I was driving down the highway with tears streaming down my face.
Obviously I am a huge fan of Mr. Gaiman's, and I highly recommend this book.
A great story in the tradition of a fairy tale/ fable, with creative yet believable characters. One of, if not the, most favorite of the Neil Gaiman books.
This was a fun book about a boy who encounters danger and odd magic. Neil Gaiman reads his own work very effectively. This does have some "adult" parts in it very briefly and though about a boy the book is probably for older kids and adults.
Maybe it was one I should have actually read because I never got sucked in listening. I found that after long chunks of time I would realize I had no idea what was going on and I had no desire to go back and listen again to figure it out.