Monday, January 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #13: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Someday, some academic will write a really interesting paper comparing Neil Gaiman's 2002 novel for young readers Coraline with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a novel of similar length from a decade later and definitely aimed at adults. The two books aren't tightly parallel -- Coraline is a portal fantasy with a young heroine getting what she thinks she wants and then having to get free of that, while Ocean deals with fantastic elements erupting into our world in a story told entirely in flashback by a now-adult man remembering his own childhood. But the attitudes towards parents and responsibility and family and imagination are much more similar, and the two works vibrate interestingly with each other, even against the backdrop of Gaiman's full career -- which has many other works digging into similar territory.

Ocean is a slim book, but not a slight one: it's precise and focused and taut, like a great novella, and has the control of tone and scope that only a short book can maintain.

The main character is a man of around Gaiman's age, from England but now resident elsewhere, engaged in "making art" in some way he doesn't specify, with grown children and a broken marriage behind him. We never learn his name. He has one younger sister, always called "my sister," and parents whose names are used once or twice in the book -- in the way that parents' names are mysterious and rare in the life of a young child. He is not Neil Gaiman.

But he's not not Neil Gaiman, either.

In the frame story, the man is about fifty, returning to his area of his childhood for the first time in a long time. There's a funeral, and he's on his way from the service to the reception afterward at that sister's house when he sidetracks down the lane where he used to live. The house of his childhood is long gone: torn down and its lands divided to make a dozen or more smaller identical houses. But, at the end of the lane is a farmhouse that he remembers.

When he was seven, he met the family at that farmhouse -- eleven-year-old Lettie Hempstock, her mother Ginnie, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock. And the bulk of Ocean is what the middle-aged man remembers of that time, when he returns to that farm and sits down to look at a small pond -- which Lettie, back then, told him was an ocean that her family traveled through to get there.

He remembers it all, in precise detail, all of the things that happened to that seven-year-old boy. And he remembered absolutely none of that before he returned to that pond, that ocean. He remembers the dead body in his father's car, his dead kitten, a new live-in baby-sitter that called herself Ursula Monkton, and what she really was. He remembers what his father did, and what he had to do, and what happened to Lettie.

But he never says, or thinks about, who the Hempstocks are -- though we readers, knowing Gaiman's penchant for mythology, can make our guesses. And we're probably partially correct.

There's sometimes a sense that short books are less impressive than long ones, as if words get better the more of them you stack together. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of the strongest arguments for the opposite theory: it's keen-edged and devastating, with every word chosen as carefully as a short story. It's already won an award or two, and I could see it winning more: this is a major book by a writer I wish had more time to write novels.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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