“It’s always too late for sorries.”
You see, I had no interest in and no intention of reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane when it first came out in 2013. Despite the fact that Neil Gaiman appears in all his public manifestations to be some kind of Reading Genius who gets what books are for perfectly, I’ve never really got on with his actual writing. Stardust was a huge disappointment, Neverwhere was simply nondescript, and although I love Good Omens with all my heart and soul Terry Pratchett wrote half of it, so it does not quite count. At least not in my brain. So when the whole of the internet was reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane and being like, “OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS! THIS IS SO AWESOME READ IT” I sat there, hipsterishly, thinking, “Neil Gaiman is, like, so overrated.”
Anyway. The Resident Grammarian announced recently that he’d acquired a copy, and would I like to read it, and I was like, “well, okay, free book”.
The Gods of Reading, it seems, are not without a sense of irony.
Because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is actually…well, I hesitate to use the word “sweet”, for reasons that will become apparent later, but that’s the general sentiment. It’s a memory story: an adult narrator, visiting a childhood spot, narrates a strange tale of powerlessness, adult blindness and ancient magics, remembered through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy. That’s an interesting framing device in itself, and Gaiman uses it to reflect on the distance between childhood and adulthood, and the tricks that memory plays in between. And though the book does occasionally read like a YA novel, there are darknesses to it that feel much, much more adult. I’ll admit that I felt predisposed to dislike this book when Gaiman killed the narrator’s beloved ickle wickle kitten Fluffy (AWWW KITTENS) literally a page after nobody turns up to his birthday party. Can you get any more pathetic? NO. (Also there’s this horrible wormy thing which is actually an evil monster….UGH.) But the magic of this book sucked me in. It’s an ancient, primal kind of magic which is deeply satisfying in the sense that it’s how many of us secretly think the world actually works. Science tells us that the universe is a soulless machine which cares nothing for consciousness. Gaiman, however, tells us that, yes, we are only the tiniest, most insignificant part of reality. Yes, there are vastnesses to the universe which we can never understand. But we are not alone. There are powers ancient and vast just around the corner who remember when the moon was made; who can control monsters with broken toys; who can mend an injustice with a snip of the scissors; who can keep an ocean in a pond. The familiar becomes deeply, ritually powerful, invested with a majestic sense of otherness. To quote the Dark Tower series: “There are other worlds than these.”
It’s a magic which makes sense out of memory; which imbues those deeply familiar rituals – the farmhouse meal, the fairy ring, the hated babysitter – with actual and objective power. They pull us, says this magic system, because they are literally potent. Because they objectively mean something. Gaiman manages, somehow, to combine cosmic science with meaning, with perpetuity, without ever leaving us in doubt of the frailty and ridiculous pomposity of humanity.
This is, though, fundamentally a human story. There is human darkness here. There is the fear of the child in the face of the mysteries of adulthood, and the realisation that adults, too, are fallible – there’s something very Coraline-ish about this story in its defamiliarisation of parenthood, although even that book was less brutal than this one, because the parents here are the real parents, not button-eyed monsters. But if there’s darkness, there’s light too, and one of the ways through the woods (to mix my metaphors) is books.
Gaiman is, as I said above, very, very good at writing about books. He writes here about how his narrator used books as a child – used them for solace, for escape, for advice, for inspiration and at one point for actual practical information. And – this sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true – he just gets my childhood. It’s uncanny. This guy I have never met totally understands how I feel about literature.
Also cats. There are lots of cats in this book. The awesomeness of this needs no elaboration.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is unlikely to be my favourite book of the year, and it’s not going to change my life in any fundamental way. But it does have its own quiet beauty, its own lyricism; as an exploration of childhood and memory, it’s interesting; as a story, it’s deeply satisfying; as a magic system, it’s tantalisingly right. You can tell, I think, that this is a personal story for Gaiman.
You know what? I’m going to go ahead and use the word “sweet”. Despite the darkness and the fear, it’s a sweet story about childhood, magic and memory. Do go ahead and read it, won’t you?