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.