Contemporary Literature · Fantasy

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

ocean at the end of the laneby: Neil Gaiman

I know it’s been a few months since this came out, but my mom bought me a signed copy for Christmas so I held off on reading it until I received the signed copy.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s latest fairy tale.  Gaiman always writes things with a darker edge, and this was no exception. It was written more along the lines of Coraline and Stardust than, say, American Gods or Neverwhere, with a simpler plot line and less complicated storytelling.  It is an adult’s book, though I would say anyone 12+ could safely read it.  (There is a part or two that might exclude your under-12 crowd; a not-terribly-indiscreet sex scene, or implied sex scene – there’s rather passionate kissing – and a few scary and many suspenseful parts.)

It’s the story of a nameless narrator, who goes back to his hometown in his middle age and finds himself wandering out to his old childhood home and then onto his old neighbor’s property. After a cup of tea and some conversation, he finds himself at the edge of a pond, struggling with half-formed memories.  But then he remembers – it’s not a pond, it’s an ocean.  And both he and the reader are plunged back into the year he was 7, a year of adventures and magic and mysterious others.

I won’t delve much on the plot. It’s good – fast, intriguing, paced well enough that you hold your breath during the scary parts and never quite relax until the end.  There’s lots going on and it’s much less fill-in-the-holes-y than some of his other stuff. (American Gods, anybody?)  Which is nice; this is a short read but also a quick one.  At the same time, it still feels like you’re reading a Gaiman novel; the world is complex and you can tell there’s more going on than he’s letting the reader see.

It’s told in first person POV and we can only see what our 7 yr old narrator sees; it’s not colored, at least not obviously, by the 40 yr old’s recollections.  I really liked the choice of narrator, actually. He’s observant and intelligent, though believable as a child.  He’s very sympathetic and he does have all those moments children dream of having, like rebelling against authority figures and being right while the parents are wrong – though, of course, not in the way you’d expect.  At the same time, he’s flawed and well-rounded.  He’s brave, but not extraordinarily so, which I appreciated.  So rarely do you read of a hero in an adventure with ordinary courage, if that makes any sense.

The neighbors, by the way, are the Hempstocks, three generations of women who live at the edge of the ocean.  They possess great, but not unlimited, power.  The grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, is a woman both comforting and intimidating.  Her granddaughter, Lettie, is practical and extraordinarily brave, in a very matter-of-fact way.  In the non-literary sense, they are the heroes of the story.  I, of course, love strong female characters and this book is peppered with them.  They’re – I hesitate to say well-rounded; not every character needs to be well-rounded – but well-developed.  The reader begins to understand them, and though they may not be terribly multi-faceted and complex, they are immense and deep characters and it is enough.

The book is driven by plot, though not at the expense of the characters.  Though character growth is not focused on – and indeed, I am not sure that many of the characters even grow – it does a great job of exploring the characters, which was enough to satisfy me, especially given the brevity of the story.  In short, it’s a remarkably well-balanced book and I absolutely loved it.  And, it should go without saying that Gaiman is an excellent writer and this was no exception.

If you have been wanting to like Neil Gaiman but find his works intimidating, or if you like darker fantasy books, or if you like child narrators (ug, sorry if that sounds weird), you should definitely give this one  a shot.  If you lean more towards epics or stories where the main character is heroic and saves the day, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.


Poll Results! And Neil Gaiman’s tour brings sadness

My completely unbiased, totally randomized, 100% scientific poll results! (And one fourth of that statement – the poll results fourth – is completely true.)

As a child, did you read…

Answer Votes Percent
Animorphs – epic wars and morphing teenagers rock! 20 43%
Both! 16 34%
Goosebumps – things that go bump in the night are where it’s at! 8 17%
Neither – I had better things to do 3 6%

It looks like the majority of people read Animorphs (yay!) or Animorphs and Goosebumps.  I’m going to leave the poll open, and I’ll revisit it if I get significantly more results.

In sad, other news, Neil Gaiman is coming to the United States for a book signing but (edited because new information came along) ALREADY CAME TO DALLAS AND NOBODY TOLD ME.

Wow.  I’m crushed.

I guess the only option is to go to the UK next time he puts a book out.  That’ll make up for this!



Difficult Books

I stumbled across this lovely post from A Striped Armchair, which made me smile as it took me back to American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  I truly love Gaiman’s work.  I’ve read Anasazi Boys, American Gods, and, of course, Good Omens.  I have Neverwhere on my shelf and I’ve been meaning to get to it.

But Gaiman is really difficult for me to read. I don’t know why; I’ve always finished his books with a sense of satisfaction and a head full of thoughts.  I enjoy the experience of reading them; it just takes a good deal more effort than most other books I’ve read.

I’m going to be honest and say I’m pretty talented at reading.  I have excellent reading comprehension skills, I’ve an extremely fast reader, and I read way above my grade level all throughout primary school. (To make up for that, I’m absolutely terrible at geometry, have the visualization skills of a sickly gnat, and really struggle with memorizing anything.)  There are styles that I dislike – Cormac McCarthy comes to mind – but rarely do I find something that is actually difficult for me to get through.

Gaiman, of course, is a struggle – all the details, maybe? Perhaps the way every sentence has more than one meaning and I have to carefully consider every element from multiple angles? – and David Foster Wallace is kickin’ my ass with Infinite Jest. (I’m so lost, guys! So very, very lost!)

And the thing is, I’ve read tons of “difficult books.” I’ve read wordy nonfictions and pretentious articles; academic papers seemingly designed to confuse the reader; weighty tomes with long passages and a confusing array of characters.  I struggled less with The Master and Margarita than I do with either Wallace or Gaiman.  Sure, I don’t understand everything or catch all the nuances but the ease of putting the story together was always there.  I wasn’t constantly flipping back because I knew there was a detail I wasn’t remembering or stopping every five minutes to consciously puzzle things together.

A small part of me is glad I can challenge myself not just with ideas but with the actual act of reading and reminds myself that it’s lucky I’m easily able to do something I enjoy so much.  A much less adult part of me just wants to pout and go “It’s not fair! It’s so hard!” as I work my way through their books. (It’s good for you, adult me mutters.  It’ll build character. Stop whining.  Many people struggle with reading. Yeah, toddler me whines, but I bet they didn’t have to spend a whole summer in the Wal-Mart parking lot practicing parking before they got it right.)

What about you? Do you read with ease or with effort? Is there an author or book you love but struggle with?