Topic #12: Read a fantasy novel
Book: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
Published by William Morrow and Company (2013)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with a middle-aged man driving alone from a funeral to his childhood home, and then down the road to the home of a strange girl he knew when he was just a small boy. Vague memories shift and change, becoming clearer and stronger, and he remembers a childhood that was far more dangerous and wonderful than he could have imagined. The problems of his adulthood fall away as he recounts a time when he was young, when his world was full of monsters and the people who fought them.
The book’s prose holds all of Gaiman’s usual charm. The voice is mellow and pleasant, distant without being unemotional–a signature of Gaiman’s. He’s used similar voices for protagonists as varied as ex-convicts and businessmen, but here, he uses it for a seven-year-old child with surprising success. Also on display is Gaiman’s unique sensibility when it comes to the fantastic. The magic and monsters that filled our protagonist’s childhood are more functional than they are explainable. For instance, a little pond in someone’s backyard can, at any time, also be an ocean, without it ever being necessary for it to change size. Frequently, the protagonist’s safety from spirits older than human civilization turns on apparently arbitrary human conventions like land ownership and child custody. Most of Gaiman’s work features magic that either defies common sense or, just as bafflingly, is perfectly in keeping with it at surprising moments. This approach is uniquely suited to the story of a young child puzzled by the world of adults, because it allows us to share his confusion as he searches for his place in a frightening and unknowable universe.
Beneath all the magic is a story of mundane misery: even before our unnamed protagonist becomes the target of an otherworldly spirit, he lives as an eccentric outcast. He has no friends from school, and is neglected by his family. He’s afraid of the dark, afraid of his schoolmates, afraid of his own helplessness, and most of all, he’s afraid of his father’s temper. So, when a monster shows up at his front door with terrifying plans for him and his family, it doesn’t feel as though much has changed. There were always monsters around, just not in such an obvious form. The protagonist’s anxieties (whether their causes are supernatural or not) are the heart of the story, and give it weight and life.
Like the protagonist himself, I find the details of this book already receding into a misty past, and this is probably the worst thing about the book. Despite some moments of excitement and horror, the story as a whole, like a toy made for children, doesn’t have any sharp edges. The obstacles that the protagonist must overcome are just too straightforward to maintain a reader’s engagement. Half the time, he doesn’t even solve them himself, relying on assistance from Lettie Hempstock, the girl who lives at the end of the lane. Lettie has courage to suit a dynamic, goal-driven protagonist, but her inhuman origins and the resulting distance from the reader prevent her from taking on a lead-character role. We are left with a cowardly, child protagonist, which in spite of the advantage it has of feeling fresh, manages to rob the book of a sense of forward momentum.
Usually, in reviewing a book, I try to identify what a book is trying to be, and then determine how well it succeeded, but here, I feel it’s a lack of ambition that sabotaged it, ensuring that in spite of its share of thrills and a good villain, it didn’t amount to anything more than a fun time. Gaiman presents us with a boiling cauldron of juicy thematic ingredients–fear of death, overpowering loneliness, the fallibility of human memory–but although I enjoyed it at the time, it didn’t seem to mean anything terribly important in the end. As I drive away from the ocean at the end of the lane, I think it will probably be for the last time.
Final Grade: B