My next entry in the 100 Untimed Books challenge I’m filing under prompt #28: Water.
The Ocean at The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is an odd little gem.
I’m definitely a Neil Gaiman fan, and although the book was published in 2013, I just got around to reading it a couple weeks ago. In truth, it’s been sitting in my husband’s to-be-read pile for quite some time. When I was away on retreat earlier in April, I got a cryptic message from him, saying he’d been pondering life and couldn’t wait for me to get home so we could really talk. Luckily he wasn’t having some sort of existential crisis; rather he had just read the book and it affected him powerfully. He thought it was perhaps the best book he’s ever read. And that’s saying something since he’s probably the most prolific reader I know.
So of course I got right to it and read it for myself. I’ve been sitting with it for several weeks now wondering exactly what I could say about it. It basically defies description for me. But to give some kind of context: It’s a short novel about a man, returning home for a funeral, who while in town re-visits a childhood place he’d forgotten about. He remembers something hugely important to him as a child – a time of magic both terrible and beautiful. Gaiman weaves the adult and child perspectives wonderfully, so we get a very clear sense of what the young boy experienced at the time, as well as how it affected him as an adult.
The book is both simple and deeply complex, and ultimately I think the most true thing I can say about it is that is a brilliant look into childhood. A reminder of the time and place that is both dark and yet normal; where magic and the fantastic are ordinary and unquestioned; and how we move from that place into adulthood and lose our remembering.
I keep thinking about this particular quote:
“I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”
Okay, admittedly that sounds rather dark, and yet I think there IS an element of dark to childhood that we don’t often talk about. We Disney-sanitize all the fairytales, but I’m not sure how helpful that really is. Supernatural powers and strength are often called in because there IS a need, and childhood can be a time where we experience protection and love from unexpected places that we accept without question, only to understand when we are older just what a gift it was.
I definitely enjoyed the book, and it’s given me lots to think about. It’s layered with allusion ranging widely from the triple goddess to wormhole travel to the origins of the universe, and yet its subtle and seamless – the perfect subliminal accompaniment to a fantastical tale of an ordinary life.
Keeping with my tradition of using floriography (language of flowers) ratings, I award this story a farmhouse table’s bouquet of White Lilac (youthful innocence), Lobelia (malevolence), Witch Hazel (a spell), and Moonwort (forgetfulness).
So tell me, have you read this one? Have a suggestion of something I can add to my impossibly large to-be-read list? Remember how different the world was when you were a child? Do tell – you know I love to hear.
I have only read “The Graveyard Book,” by Gaiman. I really enjoyed it. Don’t know why I never read anything else of his. Now you’ve got my interest piqued.
Well if you do decide to revisit him Maggie, he’s got some real winners in my opinion.
I think I’ll be ordering the Kindle version. It’s got great reviews from the rest of the world, too, I just saw. Haha, I do have to say if I got a cryptic message like that from my husband while I was away, I’d probably have hopped on the next plane home.
I’ll be curious to know what you think of the book Candace. I wasn’t really worried about the cryptic message, but most definitely intrigued.
I’m going in ten minutes to pick this up at the library. excellent review!
LOL – I love that TL. A woman who does not hesitate!
In a Deborah Weber book recommendation such as this, she who hesitates is lost.
This book is so odd; it simultaneously shreds the fabric of what we consider reality, while providing a traditional fairy tale fantasy. It is a story of adult forgetting and denial, but what is to be remembered here? Imagination, fact, or most likely an elixir of both. Is this about a misfit whose family did not understand him and dismissed his feelings? Did he create an imaginary home where he was accepted and “normal”, and his needs were attended to in ways he had not experienced? Did he decided to apply his considerable imagination and experience with book heroes to flesh out the fantasy?
Or did the Stranger Who Came Down the Lane actually set off a string of circumstances that could only be rectified by Old Ones?
The Stranger’s death was Trauma Three (oh, that magic number)–for me, it was the least painful of the three he endured, but the most causal to the story; the character that moves everything forward arrive immediately at the scene. Or, did the child merely retreat deeper into his fantasy “family-rescuers” scenario to work through the trauma?
Every feature of this book is fascinating…I did not find one false note nor did I have difficulty suspending my disbelief. How much of this do I, or can I, believe, and why? I see it as the magic of childhood innocence and imagination, especially as a retreat from trauma, as well as an exploration of how the Universe was created, what it is and what sustains it. I believe both equally, and I also believe there are likely other important themes that I’ve not seen yet, or may never see at all.
I feel that it is a book that begs reading in one sitting; it is not a long book and I will go through it the second time without a break. A million thanks to you Deborah for recommending it. I agree with Pete, though it may not be my favorite book of all time, it is thought and spirit provoking in the extreme. These are deep waters.
Oh TL – this is yet another example of why I love you! Your writing is fabulous and you manage to convey with such clarity and depth exactly what I was floundering with.
Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of my favorites. I have to tell you that I haven’t read any Neil Gaiman before reading this one … gasp! …
I read it for a book club at the beginning of last year. It was a library book club and obviously the librarian bad chosen the book. I was the youngest member of the group by at least fifteen years and none of them liked the book at all. They just didn’t get it. Their complaint was that it was a dark depiction of childhood to which I replied, “Childhood can be dark.”
I loved it. It made me think. The sentences and words gave me all the feels. I sent my copy to my son … and then a bought another copy and gave it to my daughter … need to buy another one so I can re-read it.
And your words here … “where magic and the fantastic are ordinary and unquestioned; and how we move from that place into adulthood and lose our remembering.” … yes, yes, YES. I think my entire adult experience has been about remembering the magic.
Oh Cynthia it delights me that you’re a kindred lover of this book. It really does feel to me like finding a doorway to look back, and along with it the astonishment that there even was a doorway to be forgotten.
I’m somewhat surprised that the older members of your book club didn’t get it. I read somewhere that younger readers didn’t love it because they couldn’t relate to childhood in that way. And that had me thinking about how life really is different for those who have always been more “plugged in” as opposed to interacting more in the natural world. Now it think I’ll have to refine my theory a bit.
Speaking of Gaiman, if you haven’t seen his recent feminist poem about science The Mushroom Hunters, do go hunt it down online and read it. It’s truly a worthy marking for these times when we now need to advocate Science Not Silence.