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Review: Gaiman's 'Ocean at the End of the lane' is both magical and real

Attempting to review a Neil Gaiman book is a daunting task, almost like an act of hubris. Especially since there are just so many reasons to love him. There is the way he uses language – his style is evocative, beautiful and technically sophisticated, but somehow never over complicated or pretentious.

Then there are his characters. Being a fantasy writer, he’s created a weird pantheon. There are personifications of Dream, Death and Destiny, Lucifer the fallen one himself, old Norse Gods, trickster gods, and old powers that precede all of them. There are also humans. Lonely children, happy children, lonely adults, happy adults. Evil adults. Messed up teenagers. Adults, teenagers and children just trying to get by as best as they can. And all of them so real, even when they are placed in the most unreal settings and situations. They convince and make an impact on you. They allow you to form opinions about them and make you care about what happens to them.

But the best thing about Gaiman, in my humble opinion, is that he understands that adults need fairytales too. Even better, he writes them and he writes them well.

The Ocean At The End of The Lane (no spoilers, promise!) has all this and more. The story begins when the unnamed narrator, back on a visit home for a funeral, finds himself driving down his old childhood lane, ending up at the house that lies right at the end of it. It’s a house that he can’t really remember even though he knows that it and the old woman inside are familiar. Another person surfaces in his memories, his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock who had told him that the duck pond behind the house was an ocean.

The cover of Ocean at the end of the lane: Image from Neil Gaiman's blog

The cover of Ocean at the end of the lane: Image from Neil Gaiman's journal

Sitting by the duck pond, memories of a particularly strange summer from back when he was seven years old come back to him. It all begins when a man who was a rent-paying lodger at the boy’s home steals the family car to commit suicide. This act unleashes a mysterious power that directly threatens both the seven-year-old narrator and his family.

The novel’s epigraph is a quote by Maurice Sendak. Sendak says, “I remember my own childhood vividly... I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” It encapsulates the spirit of the book perfectly.

Set in the idyllic setting of the British countryside, Gaiman paints a hauntingly beautiful picture of childhood, made all the more perfect for his having included all the bumps and bruises.

There are the stunning descriptions of food – they had me craving milk, and porridge with blueberry jam, food that I don’t particularly care for when they’re not described by Gaiman – and the quiet pastoral beauty of the Sussex countryside.

It’s the Enid Blyton kind of childhood we all read about as we grew up. But it’s not as simple as the world of Blyton’s fiction. There is also the bad: strained relationships with parents, coming to terms with being different, and above everything, (and this is the part of childhood we all gloss over) the absolute powerlessness of having to always follow the rules, set arbitrarily by all-powerful adults. Even if the rules are stupid or dangerous.

But most impressive is the way Gaiman describes things as unsavoury as death and infidelity through the eyes of a child, without sounding artificial, naive or overly dramatic.

The dead lodger in the car for instance, looks like a “wax work” with a face like a “pomegranate”. Nowhere are the words 'suicide ' or 'asphyxiation' mentioned. Yet the point comes across perhaps more effectively than if Gaiman had been so blunt. His father’s infidelity with the woman who is supposed to be the boy and his sister’s carer is shown with a similar straightforwardness that is uncomprehending but communicates that intuitive discomfort the boy feels after having seen them in a compromising position. Gaiman’s descriptions, like the myths that the little boy loves reading, just are and as you read, you find yourself nodding because you know exactly what he is talking about.

And of course there is magic. It’s old magic – the most powerful of all – and not cutesy Harry Potter spells cast with wands. Seen through the magical lens, the quiet countryside is a facade for something much more elemental and deep. What we see is a flimsy layer of reality that lies on top of a host of other worlds and dimensions that house terrible and dangerous powers.

When the narrator is confronted by one of the more malevolent forces that leaks out of its own world and into ours, his only hope lies with the three Hempstock women, who live in the old farmhouse at the end of the lane; the youngest of whom is Lettie, the boy’s friend who could see an ocean in a duck pond.

As clichéd as it sounds, you don't want to put The Ocean at the end of the lane down. It has you completely spellbound and you will find yourself gasping and exclaiming and wanting everyone you know to read it, just so that you can discuss it with someone who also ‘knows’.

In a blog post just before the book’s official release, Gaiman said The Ocean at the end of the lane was the best book he had ever written. I'm not sure if this one is better than Stardust or Neverwhere or Sandman, but yes, it is right up there with all of them and it is definitely a keeper.