Neil Gaiman is one of those cult writers who I always think I would really, really like, I just have to read more of his books as so far the number of them that I have read is a little paltry. When it comes to authors of that stature, and being a relative ‘Neil-newbie’, it almost makes me feel fraudulent it write about his latest ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ – one of the most hyped/anticipated/buzzed about books of the year and one I read for the Not The Booker Prize. I am also rather nervous because whilst it is a book I really enjoyed reading, it is one that had a few niggles for me on occasional, let me explain (before all the Gaiman fans come and hunt me down for blasphemy)…
‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ is a book about memory and imagination and how these develop or fade as we grow up. It is also a corking story about a young boy, who starts the novel as an old (and unnamed) man, and one particular summer in his childhood when he met Lettie Hempstock. As a young boy his life was quite mundane, he was a bit of a bookish loner, and his family were ‘getting by’. One day they take in a lodger, who runs over the kitten and then kills himself in his car – not a spoiler as this happens very near the start – and it is during this debacle that the young lad finds himself being looked after by Lettie and her mother and grandmother while the police sort everything out. It is at this point that something magical is introduced into his life (at one point quite literally) and it is also when the greatest darkness comes as a new lodger, Ursula Monkton, arrives to change everything for the worse, if she can.
You might roll your eyes at what I am about to write, or think ‘oh for goodness sake why tell us about this book’, but I have to admit all the fantastical elements of this book really didn’t gel so well for me. I really liked Ursula as a villain (though she did feel very similar to the Other Mother in ‘Coraline’ at times) yet I couldn’t conjure her as the tent/marquee/thing that we first meet. I liked the hunger birds very much but the whole worm thing (even though it was brilliantly squeamish) didn’t work for me either. I couldn’t quite get it to 100% form itself in my head. Most of all though I didn’t really get ‘the Ocean’ of the title, apart from just after the denouement when it was so needed – no spoilers – as I didn’t see the point to it overall yet it is the title feature. Also did anyone else understand why the suicide at the start leads to Ursula/the worm/tent appearing? I think I missed that, or maybe it just was there because it was there? So why do, after saying all that especially about the ocean, I then think people should read it? Well…
Firstly when Gaiman writes in the ‘real world’ the book is very emotive, reminiscent and nostalgic. The scene with the bath was actually quite upsetting, as was the whole scene with his dad and Ursula by the fireplace (for some reason that really, really unsettled me). Also the emotions of feeling adults don’t understand you, hating your siblings, feeling a disappointment to your parents was all fully evoked. There is also a certain horror to the book that the ‘younger you’ inside you will be really hit hard by. Interestingly these both involve the dad, one also involving the bath and the other involving Ursula and a wall and things that shouldn’t be seen. Both had a real impact with me and left me feeling quite uncomfortable and also incredibly moved and almost bruised, it is hard to explain.
Then there is also the element of the book that I loved the most; the fact it took me back to my childhood, and I thought that this was what Gaiman was setting out to do, give us as readers a serious case of nostalgia and the memory at the route as to why we love books. All the things that appealed to me most as Simon aged 31 were the things that would have appealed to me as Simon aged 11. I loved the Hempstock’s and could think of one of my Gran’s friends who I thought (and sometimes still do) was a real life good witch, and all those old ladies who had that wry smile and spoilt you who were probably only 50/60 but seemed about 110 years old. I also thought that Ursula Monkton, or anti-Poppins, was a fantastic character I would have loved to have had in many a books when I was a kid. That of course brings up the question is this book a book for adults, for children, both? Should it even matter?
Whilst I don’t think (and here I type almost wincing with fear) it is one of the very best books I have read all year, it was a true delight as it is one of those books that will remind you of your own imagination (which sounds silly but true) and how we must stretch it unquestioningly sometimes as we would when we were younger. This seemed the biggest message I got from the book, to look back at myself and how I felt at a time when anything and everything was possible and hold that memory now all these years later. It is a book that in looking at the narrators nostalgic memories makes you look at yours and I really, really liked it for that.
In ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ our narrator states ‘I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.’ I have found myself thinking about this a lot since I read the book as I wish that the older me could occasionally find the younger me and give myself over to the fantasy side a little more as maybe if I had, with the brilliance of Gaiman’s family drama in this novel and getting lost in the ‘beyond magical’ elements of the book, this would have been the perfect book for me. Which is of course the point of the book I think. One thing I do know for sure is that I must read more Gaiman. Should I head to ‘American Gods’ or ‘Neverwhere’ next? Or another of his titles entirely?