Friday, 13 September 2013

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

After the rest of the world has long since devoured Neil Gaiman's latest offering, and a few weeks since I received a signed copy from the man himself, here, a little late to the party, is my review of the superb The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Don't be shy, dive in.

We all remember being scared as children. Of a curtain blowing in the wind from the window, of a misshapen shadow falling on the wall or, for this reviewer at a certain age, of a velociraptor in a chequered shirt coming up the stairs to eat you (don’t ask. No really, don’t). These sorts of memories can be some of the strongest that we retain from childhood. But, usually, there’s a relief at the end; a closing of the window, a switching on of the light, an …even bigger dinosaur protecting you. However, sometimes children have real reason to be scared. And the narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane certainly does.

After his family’s lodger, the opal miner, is found dead, our narrator is caught in a helpless situation as his cosy seven-year-old world is torn apart when an ancient entity with the power of a god is released. With designs for the flint lane on which he lives and the people in it.

A lot has been said about the novel's themes of memory and reflection yet, although these are integral to the atmosphere of the piece, what must not be forgotten is that Gaiman weaves together a gripping story which at its core is about the terror and triumph of childhood. What separates this from Gaiman’s other works that feature children against otherworldly forces – for instance, The Graveyard Book and Coraline – is that the novel is a recollection of an adult narrator back to his childhood and the horrors that he faced. Because of this, probably why it was a book aimed at adults rather than children, there is a stronger air of hopelessness to proceedings; a feeling of being totally lost in a grown-up world. Thankfully, though, there is some light at the end of the lane…

For this reader, the Hempstocks are the stars of the piece. The three women of varying ages, who live on the old farm at the street’s end, are ancient, wise beings themselves. ‘The ocean’ of the title sits in their land – it’s actually a duckpond, but one with a few secrets. As a child, I think we all dreamt that something or someone where we lived was different and out-of-the-ordinary and Gaiman personifies this perfectly in the heroic Hempstock women.

However, heroes and monsters are all well and good but perhaps when the novel is at its most involving is in its mixing of this other world the boy encounters and his own family. As a child, our family is our bedrock and when it is at risk there’s nothing more terrifying. We can all find something we recognise in our own family in the one the author creates and so, when the cracks appear in it and his parents fail to help their son in his predicament, Gaiman's exquisite prose takes us all back to being a scared, defenceless child.

Overall, the book is an excellent composite between the author’s adult fiction and his output for younger audiences, and is really suitable for the young and old, who will read it from different perspectives. Give it a go and you’ll find it’s easy to get lost in the ocean of fear and magic and fairy tale that runs through the heart of Gaiman's novel. The Ocean at the End of the Lane may make you revisit a time of moving curtains, lingering shadows and shirted dinosaurs but you might just feel richer for it.

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