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Aug 18

Book Review: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Here’s an edited version of the Goodreads’ description (which might also be the actual blurb… I don’t know I read the ebook).

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

In his review in The Australian, James Bradley astutely points out that The Ocean At The End of The Lane is a novel about forgetfulness rather than remembrance.  The book, as a result, is a sometimes uncomfortable read that’s leaden with ambiguity and the realisation that our main character is a psychologically fractured man.

For example, Like Gary Wolfe on the Coode Street podcast*, I was also struck by the left field use of Yiddish:

An admission about myself: as a very small boy, perhaps three of four years old, I could be a monster. ‘You were a little momzer‘ several aunts told me…

For those not up to date with their Yiddish slang, this might seem like a typo.  Actually it’s a significant character moment.  In one word Gaiman tells us more about this seven year old’s background then a good chunk of the rest of the book.**  And as Bradley contends it’s the dropping of these left field phrases and words that hints at a:

trauma that has so unsettled its narrator’s life… and that the many gaps in the narrator’s account are symptomatic of a more profound psychic dissonance. In the end it is this quality that lends this strange and deceptively simple novel its power.

I agree that the power of this book does lie in those things left unsaid, in the narrative gaps.  I also think that the same narrative cleverness meant that  I struggled to find any emotional connection with the main character.  Momzer might open up a door as to who this person is, but the crack is so small there’s no room for my foot to widen it further.  As a result the epic but also tragic ending left me cold.

I’m possibly being unfair to the novel.  The fantasy elements, which might have had a cliched aftertaste (the wise old woman, ancient beings from beyond time and space, evil nannies) feel fresh and innovative in Gaiman’s hands.  There’s also some gorgeous writing on display here, like this passage:

I understood it just as I understood Dark Matter, the material of the universe that makes up everything that must be there but we cannot find.  I found myself thinking of an ocean running beneath the whole universe, like the dark seawater that laps beneath the wooden boards of an old pier; an ocean that stretches from forever to forever and is still small enough to fit inside a bucket.

So yes it’s a well written book and I’m expecting to see it feature on the Hugo, Nebula  and World Fantasy ballots next year.  But to coin a cliche – The Ocean At The End of The Lane is a book with plenty of brains but lacking heart.

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* An episode which also features James Bradley.  Worth listening to.

** There’s more Yiddish toward the end.

 

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