Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t especially enjoy Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and that, to my somewhat surprise, is the only Gaiman I have read so far. I’m not sure where to start with The Sandman stuff, and none of the other novels have struck me as particularly compelling. (But I am open to suggestions…) I’m just not that interested in fiction that seems poised to rewrite metaphysics. If Neverwhere was full of secret doors and an entire separate plane of existence, it suggested too large a canvas, one unsatisfactorily filled.

As it turns out, though, The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t a grand urban fantasy, nor is it an Allan-Moore style fantasy-politico invention. Instead, this is a smaller, more personal and more haunted story.

And it’s what I was hoping I’d find in Gaiman even if I didn’t know it until now.

The more I read this, the more it brought to mind the fabulous A Wrinkle in Time, down even to the presence of three mysterious women (one a girl here) who represent a glimpse of powers that we humans can never quite realize. But, as important as those characters are, the real story turns on a child who is only slowly learning that the universe is larger than himself. It’s a slow, difficult and sometimes terrifying business to learn that the adults who protect us are really just grown-up children themselves. That story may be as old as our species, but we have to find ways to tell it in every generation.

Gaiman manages very cleverly (and often movingly) to give a sense of the wonders of childhood – the joy of having a kitten or the freedom of running through a field – so the threats that emerge have something real at stake. I also enjoy the framing device of his returning to the scene of these events as an adult – an adult who cannot entirely remember what it felt like to be a child in these circumstances – since it punctuates the story as a whole.

There are moments here where a nostalgia creeps in, where (as he discusses in his afterword) Gaiman seems too much drawn to the lost world of his own childhood, and that feels like a flaw to me. Others may complain about the many unexplained elements of the magic, but that doesn’t bother me; the whole point of magic is for things to be left unexplained. But we do get hints at it, promises that some things will be revealed, and then those things aren’t. I like mystery, but I have less patience for teasing.

In any case, I did enjoy this. It feels like a small work, but that may be its biggest virtue: a clean shot at recovering a lost and focused innocence.

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