Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane



The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman
    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 the 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 defense 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.
   THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is a fable that reshapes modern fantasy: moving, terrifying and elegiac - as pure as a dream, as delicate as a butterfly's wing, as dangerous as a knife in the dark.

   I’ve wanted to read some Neil Gaiman for years now. The only pieces of his work I’ve seen are his movie MirrorMask and the cinematic adaptation of Corraline, both of which I loved. The problem I’ve always found with his his books is that there’s so many of them, Gaiman’s an incredibly prolific writer and it can be a difficult canon to find a way into. However, I’d heard nothing but good things about his latest offering The Ocean at the end of the Lane, his first return to adult fiction since 2006’s Anansi Boys.
   The book seemed uniformly loved, garnering hundreds of five star reviews and seemingly nothing but gushing praise. It was incredibly deflating therefore, that I found the book really disappointing.

   The book sees an unnamed protagonist return to his childhood home to attend a funeral. While there he visits the home of his friend Lettie Hempstock and recalls a long forgotten memory of a series of magical events which he experienced as a seven year old boy.
   The rest of the book is a flashback to the events in question, where a mysterious and malicious spirit takes up lodgings in the boy’s house.

   One problem I had with the book was the style itself. Despite Gaiman’s claims, it certainly doesn’t feel like adult fiction. The setups, characters and plotting all feel pretty basic, with the lack of detail and exposition you expect from fiction for much younger readers.
   None of the characters are very developed, the mysterious Hempstock family have a massive past, the oldest member of the family claims to have been around for the birth of the moon, but there’s no delving into this backstory. There’s no real explanation of who they are or where they come from (though, in fairness, these characters do appear in a couple other books by Gaiman so there may be a little more info there).
   Even the human characters seem lacking, the boy himself doesn’t seem to go through much of a journey at all, despite the amazing things he goes through in the book.
   There’s a moment where the boys father, under the influence of Ursula Monkton, the spirit, nearly drowns the boy in the bath. Later on it’s hinted that Ursula’s powers don’t affect their subjects but bring out their innermost desires making the scene even more disturbing in hindsight. However, things like this are also never really touched upon within the narrative, and upon finishing the novel, despite the mysterious creatures and magical adventures the reader has just been witness too, it feels like the really interesting stuff, the real meat on the bones is almost entirely absent.

   The story itself has interesting moments but overall feels a little clichéd. As I was reading I constantly found myself thinking that I’d seen this all before. The mysterious little girl. The magic hiding just behind the veil of modern life. An evil entity entering a home but only the child can see that it’s evil. It’s the same thing you’ve seen in a hundred different books and movies before. I was also struck by how similar I found it to the limited work by Gaiman I’d already experienced, it felt very similar to Coralline and MirrorMask and while that’s understandable, it’s obviously a theme and setup Gaiman enjoys writing about, there just wasn’t enough of a difference to keep me interested.

   That said, while I didn’t enjoy this book my experience wasn’t so bad as to put me off reading more of Gaiman’s work in the future. There were some passages here that were beautifully written and stuck with me after putting the book down. It’s just that, overall, I felt I’d seen everything in this book done before and done better.
   I look forward to reading more of his work in the future, but I really can’t recommend this one. 

Neil Gaiman
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2 comments:

  1. I would definitely recommend picking up another Gaiman novel. American Gods is probably his best, with very adult themes, but as a way to begin his earlier works, you might consider Neverwhere first. It is somewhat forgotten in his impressive canon, but remains one of my favorites, and has had a formative impact on my own writing. The 'magic just beyond the veil of modern life' is a common trope in his writing, but is done with creativity in the works of his that I've read (haven't got around to Ocean yet). Thanks for the review.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations, I'll be sure to check them out. I'm a big fan of that "magic beyond the veil" trope so I'm sure I'll love them.
      I think I'd enjoy Ocean more on a re-read, knowing that it reads like a children's book instead of an adult novel. It's just not what I expected when I got into it. I hope you enjoy it yourself. :)

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