There is a reason why Neil Gaimen is one of my favorite authors. There are very few authors that can project a feeling with such startling clarity and he is one of them.
If you have ever read a book by Gaimen then one thing would have definitely stuck with you, that is the tone of the novel. Although Gaimen hops through one outlandish idea to the next in his works but only two things remain consistent, the first is that its all fantasy (and I mean that in the best way) and second is that things are primordially dark in ways that make your lizard hindbrain twitch. He has a capacity to tap into the primal facets of human beings and then drop them into lines in the form of casual observations. This is what leads to his extraordinary ability to build worlds.
No matter how bizarre his premises may seem his innate understanding of humans gives the whole world depth and reality. This is no different in “The ocean at the end of the lane”.
Gaimen has a fascination with children’s imagination and the way that they perceive the world which he has shown in one of his most well-known novels “Coraline” and here again we find the story told from the perspective of a child, a seven year old boy this time. To be more accurate, it is from the perspective of a forty something man who has an extended and vivid flashback to a time when he was seven and many strange things happened to him.
The author’s predilection for fables and myth comes out clearly here as nameless monsters terrorize people and a girl who is eleven (or at least has been eleven for a very long time) is the only line of defense.
Magic or something like it pervades every aspect of the novel. There are ponds that are actually oceans, nannies that are murderous succubi, and Gaimen has no hesitance in depicting all this and much more coming into a child’s life and the trauma that he goes through; however one of my favorite aspects of the book was how he treated these traumatic incidents.
When the child witnesses something traumatic instead of dwelling on the source of trauma the focus is instead put on incidental details or on anything that is not the subject itself.
The first instance of this can be seen in the suicide that happens near the start of the novel. Instead of dwelling on the dead man the child sees his comic and a batman figurine instead. This depiction of children’s ability to compartmentalize and deal with situations that should be harrowing is something that comes up repeatedly. This shows the authors reverence for childhood as a phase where you can feel things that will never be the same again once you grow up. It is this feeling that really struck me. Nostalgia but not the trivial kind that we often fall back on, its a poignant feeling of loss where you can’t quite put your finger on what you’ve lost.
The rest of the particulars of the novel are, as can be expected, solid. The characters are all interesting and fleshed out Lettie Hempstock, Ginne Hempstock and Old Lady Hempstock, of course, steal the scene by being mysterious, unimaginably powerful and comfortingly mothering but the protagonist himself is interesting as well. The idea of following this child and then the adult who has grown but who has all the while remained the same person underneath is powerful and gives the reader a point of self-analysis which is what every good book should do.
There were many lines from the novel that I would have liked to quote because of how observant and beautiful they are but then you might as well read the book and so that is what I recommend you do. Read this book.
It’s not going to change your life, it never once sets its aims on such lofty aspirations but it is a glimpse, a feeling that many of us have probably lost.
Rating: 4 stars