Friday, May 23, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

For my first ever Neil Gaiman book I decided to go with his recent publication, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It is incredibly short, and has received rave reviews. Also, it was the winner for the 2013 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy.

The Situation: An unnamed narrator (I seriously just realized, as I am writing this, that the narrator is never given a name) has returned to his childhood home to attend a funeral. In order to get a brief break from the crowd and his family, he finds himself driving down the road he used to live on when he was seven. The house he lived in is gone, and has been for awhile, but what he wanted to see was the farm at the very end of the road. It was the home of his friend Lettie Hempstock, and he recalls not only her, but also her mother, grandmother, and the duck pond that is still on the property. He hasn't thought about any of this in years, but once he starts, more details of exactly what happened at the end of the road start coming back to him. It is a story more like a dream than reality, and it is a wonder how he ever forgot it.

The Problem: The memories that come back aren't exactly pleasant ones. In fact, they resemble a nightmare more than a dream. What the narrator remembers is a time when their family took in people who payed to stay at their house. One such man had stolen their car and committed suicide in it at the end of the lane. The events that follow consist of things that no seven year-old should be able to survive. Even with the help of eleven year-old Lettie Hempstock, even if she is wise beyond her years. They are also events that would normally be considered outside of the realm of possibility. It's strange enough when Lettie keeps insisting that the duck pond is actually an ocean, but when the narrator discovers that the moon is seemingly always full when he is at the Hempstock Farm, he knows that this is no ordinary farm, and the women who live there are not ordinary people. Which certainly turns out to be for the best, because ordinary people could never defeat the evil that has found its way into the world. The narrator isn't sure he will survive this fight, even as Lettie says she won't let anything hurt him.

Genre, Themes, History: I have seen this book placed under both the fantasy and the horror categories, although I think I would personally go for the former. What Gaiman has created is a story that reads like a child's fairy tale or bedtime story, but somehow, it is still clear that it was written for adults. Most of the story is even told from the point of view of a seven year-old boy, with all of the faulty reasoning that seven year-olds employ and the naïveté that comes with it. And since the events that take place are not natural everyday occurrences, it is more like someone telling you about the dream they had last night, rather than what happened to them last week. In the narrator's incredible story, parents (and all other adults really) just don't understand children, but they always win; the Hempstock women, which includes Lettie, her mother Ginnie, and Lettie's grandmother, are incredibly strong but also still incredibly nurturing; books are a child's refuge; duck ponds can be oceans; the moon can always be full; and evil beings can find pathways into our world, although it is for their own benefit that they stay where they are. It is even an incredibly short novel, clocking in at under 200 pages, which for me only lends to the fairy tale theme. I think Gaiman has pulled off something that not just any writer could do. Sure, we can all make up a story (well, most of us), but to turn a duck pond into an ocean, and have people actually believe that is what has happened, takes an incredible skill that few have.

My Verdict: It is a good story...actually, it is probably a great story...I just didn't enjoy it as much as others have seemed to. Maybe it was the fact that it was happening to a seven year-old boy, but everything about it just stressed me out. Instead of taking time to marvel at the Hempstock women, or at the always full moon, I was too worried about what would become of the boy, and whether or not the evil would ever be made to go back to the place from which it came. With that said, the character of the little boy, who is really just an older man looking back on a story he had long forgotten, was formed really well. And the Hempstock women, all three of them, are incredible characters capable of doing far-fetched things, but their strength gave me hope and I always fealt better whenever any of them were around. And as out there as the story got, I never fealt like the reader's intelligence was being insulted. It is as if a seven year-old boy is just telling the reader about an adventure he had, as little boys will sometimes do. But for some reason, this story is taken as truth.

Favorite Moment: Any moment when the narrator was eating at the Hempstock Farm. Many jokes exist out there regarding the ediblity of English food, but Gaiman makes the meals at the Hempstock's sound absolutely delightful. And the little boy's reaction to them only make that delight even stronger.

Favorite Character: While I appreciate all of the Hempstock women, I think that Ginnie is my favorite. Old Mrs. Hempstock, her mother, is clearly the strongest of the three, but Ginnie faces down her own challenges and is also a force to be reckoned with, as is her daughter. 

Recommended Reading: I'm fairly certain I have never read a book quite like this one, so if you want to read something more on the adult side, I suggest The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. If you crave something slightly more on the juvenile side, I suggest A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. 

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