Okay, so the rundown is as follows: This is my book of 2013. The year isn't over, but I'm feeling pretty good about this one. The good parts are that it's an amazing book, though a little depressing (especially in my current state), a fantasy that mixes fairy tale with childhood memory in a way that's both familiar and entirely unique. The descriptions are fantastic, the dark bits are frightening, and it goes everywhere it can in the relatively short page length it does.
The bad parts are that it can sometimes be too on the nose, and when it telegraphs the bad things that happen to its heroes later, it does so in a little of an overwrought fashion. But neither of these are particularly strong reasons. Read the book already. It deserves it and so do you.
"You'll never get any two people to remember things the same."
- Mrs. Hempstock
The first time I ever picked up a Neil Gaiman book, I was twelve. I'd found a copy of Smoke and Mirrors in a church rummage sale for a buck, and having heard of him tangentially through my love of comics (I'd always heard of Sandman, even if I hadn't ever read it...I was a big fan of Vertigo back then), I wanted to pick up a new horror author who, even better, my parents hadn't heard of. I didn't get to read the book then, as a new author who looked like he wrote horror was kind of something my parents weren't willing to allow. But a year later, my dad, upon reading sections of the book, happened upon a story called "One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock". The two of us being Moorcock fans, he opened the book up and set it down in front of me to read, an event he more than likely has forgotten but will stay with me for a long while.
Upon finishing that story, I read several others, as I was eventually allowed to tackle the whole book. And while every story was a small masterpiece, and most of them have stuck with me to this day, my favorites were several personal-feeling stories that operated on "everyday magic"* in some way, sprinkled throughout the book. They were beautiful, touching, and at times somewhat tragic tales of stray cats who were angels and ghosts in a hotel in Los Angeles. They're still my favorite stories*** of his. It was what first got me into Neil Gaiman, and when one first has an opinion of an author or a piece of music or something new, it kind of crystallizes around those first awkward forays into the work. At times, you even believe they can do no wrong, because that early work touched you in just the right way.
I bring this up because while reading Ocean at the End of the Lane, I was sort of reminded of those stories. The book is something new, to be sure, and there's nothing else like it I've read, but it's also very much a Neil Gaiman book and has some of the same flavor, while bringing itself into new territory.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells the story of an unnamed man (much like the stories I mentioned earlier, I might add) who goes back to his childhood home for a funeral. While he's there, he remembers the friend of his who lived on the farm up the road and goes to visit her house, drawn back there by memories of Letty Hempstock and the duck pond she called an ocean. After a brief chat with Letty's mother, Mrs. Hempstock, he walks down the path to the pond and there, sitting on a bench and looking out at the duck pond, the memories start to wash over him, and he starts to remember what the times in his childhood he spent with Letty were really like...
And then-- No. I'm sorry. This book deserves better than a catchphrase like that. I can't do that to you. I can't do that to Mr. Gaiman.
Suffice it to say that things are not what they appear, and if I gave any more of the plot away, the plot that begins with two tragic events and ends with the catharsis it's been building up to all book and some hints that the magic hasn't completely gone away, you would probably wish violence on my person. So I'm not going to do that.
The first thing I liked about this book, and the most obvious, was the imagery. Gaiman puts a lot of effort into illustrating with words, and it shows. There's also something very right about everything described in the book, a certain congruence in the images that makes everything work. When something shows up, it doesn't jar the story, because it's supposed to be there. The book also does a lot of interesting things with implications...that perhaps the events within the pages are something more rational, but at the same time they very well could be magic. Of course, in the end, it goes with the magic explanation, there's a certain point where it can be nothing else but that. But I like that it parallels the possible "real-world" explanation. The descriptions of the moon and the Hempstock farm are by far the best things in the book, but Gaiman gets good mileage out of the taste of milk fresh from a cow, a terrifying run through a rain-soaked field, and of course the eponymous ocean itself (when the protagonists get to it).
The characters are another strength of the book. Gaiman says in his acknowledgements page that the Hempstocks have "lived in the farm in (his) head for a long time", and it shows. While we don't learn much about the protagonist and his family, or that much about the Hempstocks, it's very easy to envision them. Their movements feel very natural, and even familiar. When there is a moment when suddenly the characters act outside their normal roles, it's underlined and should be mildly disturbing. But, in short, these feel like people you know, and you get to know them all the better as the story unfolds. Characters should be familiar. Gaiman's gift for putting the reader in the narrator's head no doubt helps with this, allowing for things to be obfuscated through the voice and not raise any flags for the audience. It also helps that a lot of the characters, despite the obfuscation, are very distinct, allowing their voices to fill in a lot of the gaps.
And finally, the narrative is fairly lean, but doesn't move like it. Despite its one hundred and seventy-eight page length, it unfolds, allowing you to spend time with the characters and indeed their world, but never enough to grow comfortable. Which I suppose is part of the point-- it's about a point in the past that the narrator will never get back, and there is never enough time to enjoy or settle down in moments, to enjoy them until later, when they fade and blend into nostalgia, and even then you're left with a slight sense of loss. The tone of the book also plays into this well, giving the reader a slight sense of melancholy even when the book is in its brighter parts. After all, Ocean is structured as the narrator remembering things, and even in memory there is that slight sense of loss.
And in the end, that melancholy, combined with the brighter moments makes it an amazing book. It's a beautiful, heartbreaking work, and it can (and probably will be) read in one sitting. Buy this book. Buy it for your friends. Buy it for your enemies. Who knows, they may appreciate it and that enmity might dissolve a little. It's an amazing book, falling on the side of a more twisted, depressed Ray Bradbury. It mixes in subtle amounts of myth into the whole mess, too, though subtle enough not to catch unless one really pays attention. This is more than likely going to be my book of the year this year, as while the year is still going on, Gaiman's book hits me in a very delicate place, sinks its claws in, and refuses to let go.
One more thing-- I'd like to think that perhaps all the stories I mentioned are connected...that the boy from Ocean at the End of the Lane goes on to take photographs for a men's magazine in "Looking for the Girl", and tends to a cat who might be an angel in "The Price", and becomes disillusioned in Hollywood while encountering its sad, beautiful ghosts in "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories". I'd like to, but I think Mr. Gaiman might call me out on that, and I'd never been too keen on Death of the Author. So they probably aren't.
But in my head, the boy became the same man and kept making all the art he could and kept the magic in him alive enough that he went on and had adventures, returning to the ocean on the farm to remember Letty and her remarkable house and the remarkable people who lived there.
I'd hope so, anyway.
LATER THIS WEEK:
- Halting State by Charles Stross
AND UPCOMING MAY INCLUDE:
- Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
- Sloughing Off the Rot by Lance Carbuncle
- Transition by Iain M. Banks
AND MANY OTHERS
*I can name this, but I can't describe it. You know it when you read it. Kelly Link's a genius at it, as is Mr. Gaiman**. Charles De Lint's practically a grandmaster. Read Newford. You'll twig on to what it is soon enough. I wanna say "magical realism", but I feel like that's a bit different?
**Sorry, I can't call him anything else. I respect him too much, even if it does sound stiffly formal.
*** "The Price", and "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories" I think fall into this category. Possibly also "Looking for the Girl" and a few others.