Tuesday, August 13, 2013

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman

Perhaps you have heard of Neil Gaiman before - he's written some rather popular books for kids, such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, which, if you've read them, probably strike you as "for all ages", really, since there is so much smartness and cleverness (not quite the same thing) and humor and horror inside the pages that surely they make as much sense to teens and adults as to children. Or perhaps you've heard about his rather popular books for adults, including Stardust, the Sandman graphic novels, or American Gods and its successor, Anansi Boys. There are other books in both categories, of course, as well as picture books and such, but the salient point is that it's likely you've heard of him before now.

If you've heard of him, then you know that Neil Gaiman is a Captain of Fantasy (a title I have just now created for him): one of those writers who can write fearlessly about the sorts of things that make us afraid. The sorts of things you never even considered fearing before, but that are pretty terrifying to consider. And they exist in magical worlds that exist just on the margins of the everyday world we inhabit. In Stardust, there was a wall that separated Wall, England, from a magical kingdom beyond, in which witches and even stars were real, living beings. In The Graveyard Book, the being to fear was not a ghost or a vampire (those were actually quite friendly sorts), but a hit-man sent to kill a small child. And in Coraline, the thing to fear was a being known as the Other Mother, a shapeless, formless, powerful sort of being that was able to assume a form and create an entire parallel world in an effort to capture Coraline's soul.

His current book opens with an epigraph from Maurice Sendak: "I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them."

It's a worthy warning for what is to come.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane shares some of the devices I mentioned in his earlier works: the narrator, a grown man, returns home to Sussex, England, where he recollects a story that happened in his youth. It starts out in our usual, everyday world, but quickly moves into some other sort of realm - involving some women, the Hempstock women, who are not quite the farmers they seem, and a preternatural being.

Let me be clear: This is decidedly a book for adults (and teens, in my opinion), despite the fact that much of the story being related transpired when the narrator was a child. Besides nudity (remember, it's a print book, not a graphic novel, so it is whatever you imagine it to be), there are decidedly grown-up concepts in the book. Including a rather interesting discussion of whether grown-ups exist, plus a look at what father/son relationships are like, and how they can leave a mark. There are questions, such as whether we are our bodies, or whether we are something else that exists within our bodies. And there is, in case you hadn't already worked it out, magic.

To sum up: The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about eternity and knowledge, about good and bad, existence and being. It is about all of those things, and none of those things, and about magic. And you should read it.


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