Saturday, October 19, 2013

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Sometimes you finish reading a book and can't help but be overwhelmed by what you've just read. I'll say the same can be said for any story no matter the medium, but for the time being let's just focus on books. This was the case when I finished reading Neil Gaiman's latest novel: The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And given that I only just finished it a couple minutes ago and still find myself crafting semi-coherent sentences and stringing them together is a feat in and of itself; I demand your awe. Reading the book left me feeling, as do many of his books, that Gaiman might just be the most accomplished storyteller of our time. [Slight Spoilers and direct quotes from the book shall follow, enter at your own risk]

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about an unnamed protagonist who is drawn back to his childhood home after the furneral of someone close to him. There, he sits next to a pond half-remembered from a turbulent time in his youth and remembers fastastic experiences he'd long since forgotten. The events of a summer from his seventh year are recalled in amazing detail, and that anyone could have forgotten such events is amazing. There's magic and wonder, evil and danger, and the most important figure of his entire life--his young friend Lettie Hempstock. It all culminates in one wild and amazing ride that anyone and everyone should be happy to go on. 

What always strikes me most about Gaiman's storytelling is his confidence. He is confident in his reader and he is confident in his story and it shows in the most amazing fashion. Magic happens in Gaiman's worlds, and when it does, it tends to be accepted and understood in the most amazing fashion. His characters don't react in hysterics when fantastic things are happening around them or to them, and as such the reader doesn't panic either. There's a transportation that takes place when reading this story; by not feeling the need to bog the magical elements down with long lines of exposition, Gaiman allows for the most amazing sense of escapism to take hold of the reader. 

The confidence doesn't end with the fantasy elements of the story, however. Gaiman's stories have a tendency to cross between genres and age boundaries with an ease that's almost unprecedented. All at once, the story is a fantasy, a period piece, a coming of age drama, and a romance; it's for children and for adults as well. This is because Gaiman, as an adult, fully understands what it means to be a child witnessing the grownup world in a manner that he might not fully be able to comprehend or rationalize. The protagonist witnesses things he shouldn't, but finds himself incapable of understanding them beyond his own limited scope, so he doesn't try. He takes the information necessary for himself and moves on. Even the present day adult narrator that the child has become doesn't attempt to apply his learned logic to the proceedings. In this way, the events of the story are unadultrated and remain pure for a younger audience while still being interesting for an older reader.

Gaiman also deals with a number of themes and deeper messages that one typically doesn't find in YA books. My favorite comes from a passage towards the end of the story that makes for a great allegory of depression and suicide:
How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time, until your loved ones give you poison and sell you to anatomy, and even then you will die with a hole inside you, and you will wail and curse at a life ill-lived. But you won't grow. You can come out, and we will end it, cleanly, or you can die in there, of hunger and of fear.
I think anyone who has suffered from depression will understand this fear, this constant droning that it's not ok, will never be ok, and there's nothing that can fix it but death, and even then it won't be fixed properly. It's heavy stuff to find in a kid's book when viewed through that adult lens, but when viewed through the eyes of a child, it's just a scary moment in which the monsters are trying to get what they want. It's brilliant.

But beyond everything that Gaiman is doing in the background of the story, the simple truth is that his words never cease to be anything but beautiful:
A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn't I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don't change.
With a full 178 pages of phrasing and language like this, how could anyone not love this book and this man's writing? I wanted to highlight just about every single sentence; I lost track of the number of times I had to put the book down and just marvel at it after reading a line or a paragraph that took my breath away.

In short, Gaiman's book works on multiple levels. It's fun, it's entertaining, it's suspenseful, it's young, it's old, it's just plain great. Forgive me for slipping into cliche, but this book is perfect for all ages. 

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