Confession: myths, fantasy, fables, archetypes. If you were to ask me to make a list of things I like in books, those four words would top it. Ever since I was little, I've liked stories that are otherworldly. Children editions of Homer's Odyssey, Disney's fairy tales, epic poems of knights and heroes and dragons--these sorts and more lined my bookshelves and were the recipient of that most magical of gift, my public library card. From the Animorphs to Harry Potter to Kushiel's Legacy to A Song of Ice and Fire, I wraped myself in a mythic blanket, seeking shelter and warmth from the cold harsh and decidedly unmagical world. Among the greats of fantastical magical mythic storytelling, Neil Gaiman has always stood out as one of the quintessential--dare I say archetypal and elemental--best. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first Gaiman adult novel in almost a decade. Following in the wake of his landmark American Gods, I bought this book with a sort of desperate need, an unyielding desire to be transported out of the mundane and in to another world, one that only Gaiman can create. I have never felt so close to a protagonist than when our little seven year old narrator utters, "I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were."
Typically, before recommending Gaiman to anyone, I feel the need to point out a few things. First, magic exists. Don't argue with the author on this; it is a fruitless uphill battle and you will lose. Second, magic exists and neither you nor I have the mental ability to understand it. How does one sit down and try to apply any kind of law or logic to magic? It's nonsensical. The mere attempt of explaining magic--sussing out its "hows" and "why"--only renders the magic as nonmagic and in doing so you've ultimately lost the poetic beauty of the magical act. What this means in the course of reading a Gaiman book is that, by the end, you will probably walk away with very little in the way of answers. There is no grand exposition in which the central character is given a revelation of everything that has occurred in the book proper, boiled down into an easy-to-understand bullet point list. The magic will not explain itself to you; it doesn't have to. It's magic.
The "plot" (oh, such an ugly word that means almost nothing in good honest storytelling) is fairly straightforward once you release any reservations you have that by the end you will posses a clear line of progression of beginning, middle and end. Time doesn't work that way and neither does memory and thus why should storytelling. However, a bare bones sketch to at least entice you. A man in the middle of his life returns home for a funeral. Our unnamed narrator, wishing to delay the uncomfortable and awkward wake of the dead relative, drives around his former hometown, unknowingly searching for something to make him whole. His childhood house was demolished many years ago, modern uniform neatly trimmed houses replacing the romantic sprawl. He finds himself driving toward the end of the lane, where he remembers the Hempstock family lived--a triumvirate of females (grandmother, mother, and daughter). He recalls, vaguely, that he was friends with the little girl, Lettie, who insisted that the duck pond out back behind the farmhouse was really the ocean. Having gained permission to visit the non-ocean/duck pond from the still living grandmother, our narrator sits by the waters edge and, much like Narcicuss from the Greek myths he loved to read as a boy, examines his reflection and dips into the past, back to his childhood where magic and myth collided in his own backyard.
Our narrator is a very lonely seven year old boy, the kind that doesn't even realize the extent of his unhappiness. He rarely makes friends, no one comes to his birthday parties. Instead he has found solace in fantasy and myth; his prized possessions are his books. One fateful day he and his father discover a dead body and that one event sets off a chain reaction, magic having slid into our world where it proceeds to cause all sorts of havoc. At this time our little narrator meets the Hempstock family for the first time (all Maiden/Mother/Crone overtones are deliberate and intentional). Like Gaiman's other works wherein our main character finally meets the magical beings, the conversations are riddles that are hard to puzzle out--but again, don't try. Just let the magic flow. The narrator trusts them almost implicitly, but he's seven, he has no reason not to trust the very kind women. They seem to know more about what is happening than they care to explain, but they've also come up with a plan to send the magical spirit (referred to as a flea) back to its world. As one might expect, the plan goes wrong--due in large part to our narrator's inability to follow instructions--and the situation only gets worse. The magical being decides it wants to reshape our world to match its own, and uses our narrators family as a means to do so. The family is turned upside down and the horror of this is almost too real. While Gaiman uses magic and myth to examine what happens, somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered if these events were real to Gaiman--reinterpreted, like so many traumatic events are, in language that is more accessible and more easy with which to grapple. What follows is the meat of the story, so I won't spoil it, but it comes down to sacrifice and eventually memory and how clouded the latter can be, how no two stories are the same and that part of growing up is learning to tuck those memories away in the nooks of your mind, rationalizing them as the distant echos of a childhood long since past. Bu as Gaiman writes, "The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world." On the inside, we are all still children.
The non-ocean/duck pond is perhaps the biggest symbol of the book, bookending two of the more prominent moments in the story. The non-ocean/duck pond (that is really an ocean and barrier between our world and the universe that exists beyond this world that is populated by myth and monsters and magic) serves as anchor for our narrator, his inexplicable return to the shore never fully understood to him. It is a home where he can return but where he cannot stay. The ocean is bigger on the inside in more ways that one. It severs as a vessel for rebirth and as a link to answers we all seek: who am I? How did we lose that magic inside of ourselves? Where do I belong? Where is home? It is always just outside our grasp and just when we think we have latched onto it all, it slips--like so much water--between our fingers. This feeling of happiness beyond the pale is articulated best by this line:
“How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You
have a gateway to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you,
as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you
are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have,
something you cannot even properly imagine…” Something always calls him back, something always calls all of us back, that hole in our heart that yearns to be filled.
If this book does one thing specifically well--and it does a great many things well--it is in calling up some long forgotten distant pain of your past. Whether you had a happy childhood or not, this book will drudge up some memory that has alluded you in the years since, tugging at your minds eye, beckoning to be revisited. It could be a traumatic one--the fear of adults and adulthood, loneliness--or a good one--the joy of a new book, the act of playing with your first pet on a sunny afternoon. All memories are painful, because of the memory itself or because of the pain of loss, of knowing that you aren't that child anymore. At one point the older narrator waxes nostalgic about how he may not miss childhood, but he does miss how he never took anything for granted: the small wonders we experience as children that our jaded adult selves blindly toss aside as common and normative.
In the end this book flows wonderfully; I easily read it in four hours because the sheer act of putting it down meant I was no longer in that world where I so desperately belonged, that has called to me since I was a little girl. Gaiman's words are lush, you can taste the honeycomb and cream on the porridge. The villain of the story is cruel and petty for the sake of being evil, and I relished it. She was perfectly terrifying--the mythic monster that seeks to destroy a family by her mere presence.
I fully recognize that this is not a typical review. I will not analyze any elements that were "bad" because there were none. I'm sure others will find fault in the pacing or the narration or certain deus ex machina plot devices. Not so with me. This is a panegyric, a paean, a sacrifice lovingly offered up to Neil Gaiman as a token of appreciation for yet another hauntingly beautiful book that moves and tugs at the soul. This book is unquestionably Gaiman and I would not have it any other way.
Overall rating: A