Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Lovely Sort of Dark: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
William Morrow, 2013

It's not often that I sit down to write a review and have no idea what to say because I've encountered a story so exceptional that any words I provide will surely fail it. But this is one of those times and it's a great problem to have. In this book, readers learn the story of an unnamed man in his 40s who has returned to his childhood home for a funeral. While there, he finds himself drawn to the old house where the Hempstocks lived and where his life was altered forever when he was seven years old. That was when a man killed himself and set off a chain of events leading him to become friends with 11 year old Lettie Hempstock, her mother, and her grandmother, and encountering things so dark and strange and terrible and magical that few people should ever have to face, let alone a little boy.

In less than 200 pages, Gaiman paints a picture that packs a punch, but in a subtle sort of way. The language and sentence structure he uses is simple, but put together this prose feels much more like poetry in that it's not about using big words, but using the exact right ones. This surface-simplicity also makes the book feel like a dark bed time story, with strange evils and magical forces gently unwinding and wrapping around everything, pulling tighter and tighter almost without notice until it's too late. Only a masterful storyteller could craft a novel that is short and powerful and even a bit dangerous.

The Hempstock women are all fantastic forces and my heart quickly formed a soft spot for Lettie, a girl with gumption who makes mistakes but does everything out of the goodness of her heart. Her mother and grandmother were also spots of light in this dark story, both for myself and for the narrator who so desperately needed understanding and care. The narrator's perspective, looking back at strange events and recalling them as seen through the lens of a child was well balanced as well with its understanding of what we see when we're young and how it changes as we grow.

My only struggle with this book was an inability to understand the sort of magical 'rules' governing the forces at play - I like to know what can and can't be done - but upon thinking about this book (which I have done a lot of ever since finishing it) it makes sense that it is not defined. The narrator did not, could not know those things, and the scary pushes and pulls at work wouldn't be as strong if the truth were revealed.

This is only the second Gaiman book I've ever read, the first being Coraline several years ago, and I'm so happy that I finally picked it up. I was in the mood for a "grown up book" but nothing so long, something that would make me think but that wouldn't leave me exhausted or reaching for a dictionary. It's been a long time since I've encountered such a pure fantasy and a story I was completely lost in. I'm running out of shelf space and this isn't usually the type of book I'd buy, but I find myself not wanting to return this to the library. Not just yet.

Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading!

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1 comment:

  1. I adored this book, though I can add a disclaimer by saying I'm a huge Gaiman fan. The scene with the thunderstorm and chase through the field is my favorite, I picked this up at a signing and since it was storming Mr. Gaiman read that portion to us. I still get chills remembering that.