Monday, 2 November 2015

Book Review - 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane', by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has developed a reputation for the quality of his novels for younger readers, such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book. They each featured young protagonists confronting the supernatural - and, they weren't shy about going for a few scares, where appropriate. They were novels written with a clear respect for any children who might choose to read them, and a firm belief that they were perfectly capable of handling a little fear.

At a glance, it would seem that his most recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is intended as a new addition to this list. Like the others, it also features a young protagonist in the form of our unnamed narrator. Also like the others, it is not afraid to let elements of a very surreal sort of horror enter the tale as our narrator is forced to confront the strange and supernatural. But, despite seeming to have so much in common with those earlier novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not actually a book meant for children. The themes that the novel explores are, perhaps, simply a little too mature for the average child. That isn't to say that a young ready wouldn't enjoy this novel, though - just that, depending on the age, parents may want to make that decision on their child's behalf.

The novel centres itself around our unnamed narrator - a man nearing middle-age who, after returning to the small town where he grew up to attend a funeral, allows himself to drift away from his friends and family as he makes his way back to his childhood home. Finding that the house he remembers has been demolished, our unnamed narrator drifts further - making his way toward the farm at the end of the lane, a farm belonging to the Hempstock family, where, he remembers, he once new a girl named Lettie, who had claimed that a small duck pond was actually an ocean.

As he sits by this pond, our unnamed narrator looks back to his childhood - remembering, first, his strange friendship with Lettie Hempstock, then the time that the two of them had found themselves at the mercy of a powerful, and sinister, supernatural force.

It had begun when his parents had rented out a spare room to a lodger - a South African opal miner. An opal miner who, after gambling away money that did not belong to him, had committed suicide to escape debts that he could not pay. His body was found in a stolen care belonging to our narrator's father, on the very edge of the Hempstock farm. This tragic act had gone on to have much broader consequences, though, as neither the Hempstock farm, or the family who live on it, are entirely ordinary. This man's tragic death, it seems, also resulted in the waking of something powerful and mysterious - a strange entity that had taken an interest in the mortal world.

Overall, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a relatively short novel. It might even be fair to share that it is, perhaps, a little too short. Once the supernatural elements of the story begin to make their presence felt, things start to get very strange, very fast. There are many points in which it feels as though the novel's more bizarre ideas would have benefited from being given a little extra room to develop, so that they could have made a clearer impression on the reader. There is the awakened creature, itself - who may not be entirely malevolent, but who is greedy and selfish, and clearly does not understand humans. There is the pond that is really an ocean, and which can also be carried in a bucket. There are things called 'hunger birds', that clearly aren't really birds, but whose purpose is to devour anything that doesn't belong. Then, there's the Hempstock family, themselves - three women (well, two women and a young girl, really - though, Lettie Hempstock has been eleven for a very long time) who clearly have a much deeper understanding of all of this than the reader is ever allowed to have.

All of these ideas are tossed at our young protagonist, and at the readers, over a very short period of time - and, the result is occasionally overwhelming. It creates a strange sensations not entirely unlike watching the last episode of a long-running television series and expecting to be able to understand anything that is happening. It feels as though there is much more to this story then we could have ever been given within the pages of a single, short, novel - and, that makes for an occasionally confusing read.

Though, of course, it also seems likely that that feeling of being overwhelmed is entirely intentional. We are, after all, being told a story from the point of view of a seven year old child - one caught up in something that even an adult would have struggled to understand. When we are confused and uncertain, we are simply sharing in what our narrator must have experienced. Our narrator was, essentially, out of his depth from the moment he agreed to accompany Lettie Hempstock into that strange other-world that can only be accessed from the Hempstock farm to assist her in confronting the strange creature awoken by that tragic suicide. And, when that creature is able to make its way back into the mortal world, he is similarly overwhelmed and uncertain. It may be frustrating, as a reader, to be left in the dark regarding so much of what is actually happening - but, considering whose view-point we are observing all of this form, it is also entirely appropriate.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane has many of the same elements of folk-lore and fairy-tale that have always seemed to feature in Neil Gaiman's stories. It is dark, and occasionally disturbing - but, it should be repeated, not necessarily in a way that a child would be able to understand. For older readers, though, it is a fascinating experience - and, one well worth your time.

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