Book review : Ocean at the end of the lane

The ocean at the end of the lane, by Neil Gaiman

I’ll be lazy and copy up the back cover and inside sleeve blurb first!

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is a novel of childhood and memory. It’s a story of magic, about the power of stories and how we face the darkness inside each of us. It’s about fear, and love, and death, and families. But, fundamentally, I hope, at its heart, it’s a novel about survival ~ 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 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

With a such a powerful build up, you’d better hope it can deliver. And deliver it goes, but I think the Post Office rattled it first to see if there were any breakables inside, then kicked it around a muddy garden for good measure. Then they pushed a note through your door and legged it, leaving the parcel on the step.

OK, bit harsh, but Neil of all people should know that it you are going to make your readers a promise, you’d better keep it and for me there were – gaps. First off I can’t decide what age group it’s written for, but a hint is in the back that it’s mine. Or, specifically his, him to be even more exact. As it says in the acknowledgements, … the Zena Sutherland Lecture I delivered in 2012 was, in retrospect, mostly a conversation with myself about this book while I was writing it, to try and understand what I was writing and who it was for.

That’s not a criticism actually, he is quite open about his childhood memories influencing this fantasy book. I read somewhere that writers get enough material in childhood to last a lifetime of novels. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, wouldn’t be the first – nor last – time, but it makes you wonder a little about his childhood – and it reminds me of mine in many ways. He even thanked the people on Twitter who helped him remember the price of fruit salads and blackjacks in 1960’s Britain (four a penny). If you are of that age and want to reminisce, he missed wraps of Spanish Gold, sherbet fountains* and Spearmint Mojo’s but I’m sure he’d remember those too. Each to their own.

*(Just looked, they still sell sherbet fountains, but in plastic tubes instead of card and at 50p each. That’s like ten shillings in real money! But I digress).

Personally I think I’m a bit off because I don’t like remembering my own childhood, but like the child in book, mine was full of books and farms, of cups of hot tea and of darkness, so you do, remember. He, the narrator in the story, had the witches to help him forget, but even with their godlike powers, they left a cankerous emptiness deep inside him. Just a guess, but perhaps Neil Gaiman writes to forget too? Some of the things in the books, you kind of have to experience to write about well (which he did). Research alone gives you understanding, but for insight, you had to be there, as the saying goes.

Well, staring into space thinking isn’t going to get this post written. So, why don’t I like this book? Err, read the passages again, I didn’t say I don’t like it – I do – I said there are gaps. Things that are and aren’t there. For instance, in the outlines, and ancient powers awakened. No, really, it was an ancient power, singular and it was doing jolly fine reaching across the divide without having to become more corporeal and show up in person. The women, especially the grandmother are older than the universe, yet flick between being eternal entities that can ‘see’ the electron decay of copper at the atomic level, that divine paths between planes with a hazel branch, yet sniff at other pagan things for being too common. On many levels, particularly given how they shift time and space around the farm to shown their favourite phases of the moon, they are three witches from Discworld, they are goddesses from outside existence that play with dark matter like putty, and they are Aradia, Diana and Hecate – the maiden, mother and crone.

You don’t just drop dark matter into a book, once like a ‘cool word to use’ and not mention or expand on it again. Then there are the summoned ‘cleaners’ devouring a constellation in less time than it takes them to consume a poor fox, or oak tree, just no!

It’s a short book, too short for my liking at only 243 pages of largish print – I finished it before I’d even got started. But if you like an easy evening read, it is that. I think, in all, it’s like those sweets or biscuits you put out for guess and just try one yourself. And another. It grows on you in a more-ish sort of way. In a way it’s genius how he’s brought all the disparate elements together so, yes, you should read it, if only the once, but I still think it’s more for older readers with eclectic and possible weird interests. So, if you are a fifty something British wicca with a dark past and an interest in cosmology it’s a must. Whether you love or hate Mr Gaiman for it is another matter.

~ Paul

A glance at Amazon confirms it’s Marmite appeal, and that it’s too short, but it still averaged 4.5 starts out of 5 from 225 reviews

The ocean at the end of the lane, by Neil Gaiman

You can follow the author on twitter : Neil himself

Just read this interesting comment by him, in relation to this book too:
Neil Gaiman ‏@neilhimself Hudson Booksellers made Ocean At the End of the Lane their Book of the Year &(25% off). I’m now signing any in airports as I pass through.

You can also peruse his:

Personal site : Neil Gamion

His blog : Journal

or his life story and bibliography on Wikipedia

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