Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is an unusual novel. Most of the story feels like it's YA or for younger readers, but the adult (point of view) framing of the story belies that. I would hazard that it's best suited to adults and perhaps older teens.
It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond this world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed - within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it.

His only defence is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is an ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.
Before I read this book, I had seen a lot of people say a lot of things about it, mostly on Twitter (and Tumblr) and in contexts where I only got a snippet of their impression. I don't think I read any reviews before I read it. But while I had some vague idea of what other people thought, I didn't really know what to expect going in. Most of the people whose impressions I read were not people I know (retweets by the author and the like) and, I suspect, weren't people who usually read fantasy books. I was expecting a different kind of different book. What I got, however, was a solid modern fairytale.

The framing for the book is the adult main character returning to a place where some childhood memories were made and, well, remembering them. Most of the story is about a volatile period in his seven-year-old life, filled with magic and monsters and something like a terrifying adventure.

I suspect part of the appeal of The Ocean at the End of the Lane to mainstream readers (as in, don't usually read spec fic) is the ease with which the magical elements can be taken to be metaphors and coping mechanisms. But where's the fun in that? Why not let it be about the magic that only children can see and that adults are blind to? One of my favourite aspects of this novel was the interactions between the main character and his parents. It's not possible to tell the whole truth, or he's not believe when he does. I found it portrayed the way in which children live in their own separate but complete world very accurately. They may not properly understand some adult matters, but that doesn't mean they can't understand anything.

Ocean at the End of the Lane was a good read that I would recommend to pretty much everyone. I'm not a huge Neil Gaiman fan (I mean, I've liked his other books well enough, but not enough to go out of my way to read all of them) but I'd class this as one of his better books. From what I've read, I think I prefer him writing about children (if not for children so much in this case) more than his writing for adults. Also, I don't see a reason why precocious children shouldn't read this book, but I'm not sure an average seven year old would necessarily get as much out of it as an older reader. (I say this with zero baseline seven-year-olds in my life, so feel free to take it with a grain of salt.)

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Headline
Series: No
Format read: Hardcover *gasp*
Source: Purchased from real life book shop

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