Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman
Series: N/A
Genre: Fantasy, Paranormal, Magical Realism
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Word Rating: Wondrously fantastical
On Goodreads

Neil Gaiman, in this wondrous novel, has proven that the best way to write a novel for adults is through the eyes of a seven year old child. This book is, in its very essence, magical. The writing is fluid and graceful, almost as if the entire novel is a swim through the “ocean” in the title. Gaiman take us through the entire novel without ever naming the main character. Told in first person, the story of what happened on Hempstock farm (and the surrounding area) is recounted anonymously by our narrator, who has stopped by his old house on his way to a funeral. After finishing the book – which was short and took only a few hours – I realized that naming him would have taken away from the surreal and dreamlike nature of the novel.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane was 178 pages of riveting, fantastic charm. The entire novel is a flashback, and as the story progresses, the man’s memory of the incidents get clearer and more detailed. Although, as Old Mrs. Hempstock says, “Different people remember things differently and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same, whether they were there or not.” Who’s Old Mrs. Hempstock, you (don’t) ask? She’s one of the three women who live on Hempstock Farm. Old Mrs. Hempstock is so old that she “remember[s] when the moon was made.” As old as she is, however, she is not frail, and she regularly does things that most young, able-bodied people don’t – and not just around the farm, either. Old Mrs. Hempstock saves lives and is as wise and intelligent a she is old. And no one can parallel her in her magic – it’s not every person that can do a seamless “snip and cut” or put an ocean in a bucket. Her daughter, Ginnie Hempstock, also lives on the farm. She’s sweet and motherly, and knows some pretty powerful magic, herself. She thinks on her feet and is full of sass. In fact, our third Hempstock – eleven year old Lettie – must have inherited that from her mother. Lettie is a friend our narrator makes and it is her ocean that exists at the end of the lane. Lettie is headstrong and stubborn, and very wise for an eleven year old girl. She loves to do things on her own, but shows responsibility and knows when there is too much danger. Lettie was by far my favorite character in the novel, because she showed so much imagination and creativity, along with her wit and bravery.

Throughout this novel, our little seven year old dealt with a harsh family, a “content” but not happy lifestyle, and then, one day, an Ursula Monkton. Ursula Monkton was supposed to be a tenant of their house, receiving free room and board in exchange for being a nanny to the kids. However, everything is not as it seems and she turns out to be a much bigger threat than our protagonist bargained for. The novel explores his journey in getting rid of her once and for all, and facing some other enemies along the way.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is full of Neil Gaiman’s smooth, cohesive language. Who else could think of phrases like “Lettie Hempstock looked like pale silk and candle flames” and “the peculiar crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids”? The entire book is full of fluid and wondrous phrases, seamlessly blended into the story, which is captivating in itself. The plot of this novel fits together perfectly and the last bit is like a wrench in the heart – one you never want to remove. The story progresses rapidly enough to keep it interesting, but Gaiman still manages to throw in some ends that you didn’t know were loose until he tied them right up in front of you. Some of my favorite recurring themes weren’t even the major ones, like the narrator’s “little yellow handbasin, just [his] size,” or the way Old Mrs. Hempstock exclaimed “Stuff and nonsense!” in every situation.

This book was full not only of magic and conquering beasts, but of inner turmoil and defeating the beasts that are a little more common. As a seven year old, our boy dealt with much more emotional scarring from his father than normal. He also learned at such a young age that “Books were safer than people, anyway” and chose to spend his time reading than interacting with other children. Lettie Hempstock may very well have been his only friend up until that point. He learned to do things on his own and handle things in a much more mature way than most seven year olds.

Once again, Neil Gaiman has created a dazzling piece of art. His tale about the events set off by the death of an opal miner is an entrancing story, one that can be taken in many different ways. It’s one of those books that you have to read as a child, and then read again as an adult, to fully understand. Or, like me, channel both your inner child and your inner adult at the same time and see what a masterpiece this novel is. This is not just a story of a man who, with one look at an ocean-that-is-really-a-duck-pond (or vice versa), remembers an adventure. This is a story about selflessness and growing up and childishness and love. And it’s been done wonderfully.

- Noor

What's your most vivid childhood memory?
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