Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman Review

(Some minor spoilsies ahead.) 

Our nameless narrator returns to his childhood home for his father’s funeral, triggering a book-length flashback to the time when he was seven years old and witnessed the age-old battle between good and evil – in magic form! 

I’m approaching The Ocean at the End of the Lane having read several of Neil Gaiman’s books over the years – novels, short stories, children’s books, comics – so I’m very familiar with his style, themes, character types. That’s partly why I wasn’t terribly impressed with this book, because he’s basically on autopilot, though other things bothered me. 

The “adult novel” label is laughable – this is a kid’s book. There’s a suicide and a sex scene but both are brief and written from the perspective of a child so they’re ambiguous enough for younger readers who wouldn’t necessarily understand what’s happening or find anything especially harrowing in the descriptions. Everything else in the story is pure kiddie fiction in the vein of Coraline and The Graveyard Book. 

Annoyingly, one of the main characters, Lettie Hempstock, is a manic pixie dream girl – we’re still not past this irritating archetype!! Worse, she’s responsible for all the bad stuff that goes down in the story. For no reason, she brings along our nameless narrator to fight a monster in another realm where another monster embeds itself in the narrator’s foot, bringing evil into his world. It’s all her fault - what an idiot!

Peppered throughout are some of Gaiman’s usual tropes: magic in reality, kids seeing things adults don’t/kids are in tune with the magical stuff that adults forget about when they grow up, cats appear throughout and are magical beings, a young woman, older woman, and old woman appear (a la The Furies), magic is described obscurely, a bit like Dream’s powers in The Sandman, myths permeate and like magic are real, and there’s a bookish/meek male protagonist (almost certainly Gaiman).

It wouldn’t be so bad if Gaiman were doing something different in this novel and, at one point, it looked like he was – but then he decided to abandon that idea and return to familiar, dull territory. What am I talking about? The book opens with the funeral of his father – and that’s the key, or at least I thought it was, to this story. It’s about our narrator coming to terms with him and his father's poor relationship. 

The “monster” our narrator brings into our world manifests as a nanny called Ursula (of course - typical “evil woman” name, real imaginative) who has an affair with the father. Our narrator doesn’t like her which angers the father who punishes him. The whole thing is framed in a fantasy style but it could also be seen as the young boy’s imagination dealing with this real life problem of a potential stepmother and violent adult behaviour - he has to think of it this way because he doesn't know enough about the real world yet. It’s not original but I don’t think Gaiman’s done anything like that before. 

And then that idea/approach is forgotten just after the halfway mark as Gaiman devotes the rest of the book completely to fantasy. No clever ambiguity, no more ideas, just safe, dreary fantasy. Magic’s real, etc. whatever. 

Besides that, I also liked the scene where our narrator is in the fairy circle, trying to be coaxed out of its safety by things pretending to be people he knows (which is another hint that our narrator is retreating into his imagination to deal with scary reality). It’s tense, eerie and the danger seems real – brilliant stuff. 

Otherwise, The Ocean felt overlong despite being a relatively short book, likely due to too little happening. Gaiman’s an excellent short story and comics writer but he has problems when it comes to longer form pieces like novels - he’s unable to fully develop storylines or characters over time. This is also why so many of his novels have this episodic quality to them – he’s far too used to writing single issue-length scripts and short stories. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is unchallenging and typical fantasy fare for younger readers – not being a kid and having read a lot of Gaiman previously, the book failed to resonate with me. He continues to produce fine comics work today (and maybe short stories too, I haven’t read his latest collection, Trigger Warning, yet) but as a novelist he’ll always be mediocre at best. Gaiman's latest effort falls below his usual average level of novelistic quality.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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