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Thursday, October 17, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Again, a review from a book I read in July.  But hey, I am gathering all the spooky [but not all out horror] book reviews together this month.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman was his first adult tale in a while.  It is more like novella length, but has everything you would expect from Gaiman.

The work is framed as a remembrance.  A middle aged man has come home to bury his last living parent, and while visiting the neighborhood where he grew up, the man remembers the odd family of women at the end of the lane, the Hempstock's.  Specifically, he remembers one specific summer when the discovery of a dead man in his car, down at the end of the lane, leads him to meeting Lettie Hempstock, the youngest member of the family.

The 3 Hempstock women, who appear to be grandmother, mother, and daughter tell our narrator tales of the pond on their property, which Lettie claims is really a never ending ocean. This begins his entry into their world which operates on a different plane than the one he knew before.

I don't want to give away what happens because this is a short, yet extremely well plotted and rich novella. Gaiman has created a tale that you need to experience. It is a book that envelopes you (in a good way). So below, I will talk about the appeal.

Overall, this work is dark fantasy, not horror, despite one terrific scene at the climax of the book that is very close to horror.  It is mythical and mystical, atmospheric and dreamlike, menacing and dark, but ultimately redeeming. Think a Hans Christen Anderson or Grimm's fairy tales, but aimed at an Adult audience.

This leads me to a disagreement I have with most reviews of this book.  Many people have said that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is really more a YA book because it recounts a year when the protagonist was a kid himself.  I COMPLETELY DISAGREE. I will explain in a slight rant now...

Begin rant:
The entire book is framed as being told from adulthood as a reminiscence on the day of his parent's funeral. The reason he is thinking back on the Hempstock women is because he is longing for those magical days of childhood.  This is not a book for someone who is still a child.  It is for adults to make them remember what was good about childhood and its imagination.  We often need to recapture that as we grow up.  That loss of a belief in something magical is a tragedy in adult life...all adult life.  Books like these are a reminder. But that overall point is lost on a child or teen reading the book.  Only an adult can appreciate the loss at the heart of this novella.  Only someone who has begun their own family and started their adult life will understand the bittersweet tone.  Only an adult will appreciate the revelation at the end of this book; the twist that explains it all.

A perfect example to drive my opinion home is the classic Shel Silverstein book, The Giving Tree.  Think about how a child reads this book and how an adult reads it.  That explains the point I am trying to make here.  It is a completely different story to an adult than it is to a child.

Okay, rant over. Thank you for indulging me.

Three Words That Describe This Book: mystical, bittersweet, atmospheric

Readalikes:  As I already said, think The Giving Tree here; the two stories are perfect readalikes. But a few more adult fiction options are:

  • The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Why? Click here for the full review of the book with readalikes, but for the lazy ones out there my "Three Words" from that review are :  retold fairy tales, strong sense of place, dreamlike
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.  Same deal as above; click here; "Three Words" are:  slice-of-life, sense of place, quirky
  • Joyland by Stephen King which I just reviewed here.  It has a similar ton,e but the Gaiman is much more magical and mystical.  "Three Words" on Joyland are: nostalgic, fast paced, creepy crime fiction
  • Ocean at the End of the Lane reminded me of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, although the Bradbury work  has a more sinister tone.
  • The award winning Among Others by Jo Walton would make a nice suggestion.  It revolves around childhood, magic, and family secrets.
  • This tale reminded me of the very best by my trio of "slightly askew" authors: Millhauser, Donohue, and Brockmeier. Click on their names for more from me on each of them.

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