“Adult stories never made sense. They made me feel like they were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?” — unnamed narrator, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
There some authors, that when they publish something new, I am so ready to devour their stories. Neil Gaiman is one of those writers, although I came late to his books in just the last few years. His style and sense of the world is so unique that, even with his quirkiness (or maybe because of it), his books find a way to draw you in and give in to imagination. I still think Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is one of the best examples of young adult fiction published in recent years, even if it does begin with a brutal murder.
His latest – The Ocean at the End of the Lane — has faint echoes of other classics that capture childhood in a story for adults. Namely, A Wrinkle in Time resonates throughout The Ocean at the End of the Lane. That’s a good thing, in my mind, and Gaiman plays with our sense of time and timelessness in unexpected ways in this story of a young boy whose neighbors have a certain magic that brings something awful into the world. The nameless adult narrator, remembering a time when he seven years old, tells this tale to us, and while the first part of the book moves slowly, it sets the stage for everything else to come.
This is a “coming of age” sort of book, but not quite, as Gaiman explores the fierce perceptions of childhood, and how adults see the world one way, and their children, another. I suppose this is true. What Gaiman explores is the dichotomy of adults viewing childhood as a safe place, while children know otherwise. There is danger and chaos lurking around every corner of our imagination, and the slightest mistake — say, forgetting to hold hands with the girl who tells you to never let go of her hand — can uncork things unimaginable and set the world on tilt.
This novel is a short one, fast-paced, and by the time you hit the middle, you’ll be racing for the end. If you are like me, the resonance of magic will linger for some time, and it may have you looking at your own children a little differently. Keep them safe, will you? And I would suggest that this book is for adults, not children, although it comes under the guise of a children’s story. But perhaps Gaiman would disagree, and argue that keeping children sheltered is not what we want to be doing. He’s not afraid to expose the dark underpinnings of the world, and maybe stories are a way to understand what we don’t quite understand.
Peace (in the magic),