Reviewed by Joanna Celeste
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
By Neil Gaiman
Available in audiobook / Hardcover, ebook, large print paperback from William Morrow
There is a rare moment where, even as I am reading or listening to a book, I know I will want to experience it again. To attempt to describe its plot is pointless, because the story is so vast and exquisite that condensing it into a few hundred words is an injustice to the world that is invoked.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one such book. It’s the second audiobook I’ve listened to by Mr. Gaiman, and know I see why he is considered one of the world’s most beloved storytellers. (He’s among the top five authors listed on Amazon.com [for Books and Kindle] for Literary fiction, Fantasy, Fantasy/Sci-Fi, and Contemporary, and the 19th top author for the whole site.)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been touted as Mr. Gaiman’s first book for adults in eight years. True, it does not quite fall into the “All Ages” category that separates his works from “Adult” because a six-year-old would probably be scarred for life reading (or listening) to the scene where our hero (a seven-year-old boy) is almost drowned in his Safe Place (the bathtub where he reads) by his own father.
Also, it’s possible that some aspects of the story told from the adult narrator’s point of view may go over the head of some preteens. Mr. Gaiman captures adulthood with exceptional clarity, and perhaps it takes living a while to really get the depth of tiredness, of sameness, that can seep into our bones.
However, I disagree that this work should be confined to adults. Had I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane as a ten-year old, passages of it would have been like receiving a life jacket in the middle of a storm; I would have discovered someone who “understood” experiences and a mindset which were difficult to express in ordinary conversation. The way he describes the childhood of our hero, his fears, strengths, comforts, stillness, and sweet joys, is utterly true and fabulously impossible at the same time.
I would advise parents and preteen fans of Mr. Gaiman to proceed with caution if they want to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and with the same token, don’t forgo this experience because it’s “for adults”. I read The Count of Monte Cristo and The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a preteen and the few things that went over my head didn’t stop me from enjoying the story.
Considering the heart of Mr. Gaiman’s work is always the story, I would say that all of his work is for everybody, as long as we’re intelligent about how we read/listen. Trying to condense his writings into a genre or audience age group is like trying to capture a rainbow in a jar.
I would call it magical realism, if I had to, because he forges universes that are meant to be fantastic but could very well be true, too—like we’re looking through a prism into alternate realities where these things really did happen, and could happen to us, in a way.
I opted to listen to his novel, as he is a master of medium and brings each moment to life with his unique grace. If you have ever heard Mr. Gaiman speak, you know his voice has a melodic tone (and I don’t mean just his accent, but the way he chooses words and shares them). Imagine, then, that he is reading a story almost like he would a bedtime tale to a child, and this is a world which he is most intimate with. He knows these characters and their lives as if their thoughts and experiences were his to begin with, and he is confiding their secrets, celebrating their joys and admitting their fears to us, and to us alone.
Actually, he described the original story as a “love letter” for his wife, a 3000-word short with everything she loved in her stories, which he wrote for her while she was away making her album. Once he had the handwritten manuscript to hand, he flew to Dallas to be with her as she mixed her album. Every day that he typed up some of the story, he would read it to her at night when she came home. They finished the album and the novel at the same time, and in his Acknowledgements page, Mr. Gaiman shares how much she was involved through the various stages of the process. So we, as readers, are privy to something quite intimate and beautiful.
I wasn’t sure how it could fall under a love letter, but there is something distinctly romantic, in a Neil-Gaiman-haunting-magical sort of way, to the prose. This story invited participation like I have never experienced before—I even wrote three poems while listening, as a type of “conversation in imagination” with the moments and emotions that he captured and subsequently awoke in me.
A word of caution to any who, like me, are a bit sensitive to the heebie-jeebie elements of his stories: His treatment of the audiobook magnifies the experience of becoming immersed in his world, and some passages are creepy. However, with his work, it is worth the risk for me. so I tend to avoid things that creep me out, however, with Mr. Gaiman’s work it is worth the risk. He managed to define the indescribable sense of the rich magic, the terrible loneliness, and the landscape of possibilities and uncertainties of childhood, and he made it real again—something that I could sculpt and make my own as an adult.
It seems that as we become older, our existence slowly loses the fairy-tale hopes and magic of our childhood and morphs into something just a little more “mature”, realistic—and even when our days are full of joy and real-life happy endings, a certain sense of Possibility can become lost. Perhaps our hearts are broken too often, dreams achieved just shy of their original imaginings, or the hope we vested in Growing Up is just a little jaded because no one told us that by gaining the freedom of adulthood, we would have to sacrifice the freedom of being a child.
But with Mr. Gaiman, and the writing he shares with us, we can rediscover the best of our imaginations, the bittersweetness and comfort of belief, hope and mosaics of truth, in the life we have now.
About the reviewer: Joanna Celeste enjoys telling stories in many mediums, as a book reviewer, author, journalist and poet. http://joannaceleste.com