Monday, August 12, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)

I've never met a Neil Gaiman book I didn't like.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn't my favorite Gaiman book of all time - that honor currently goes to The Graveyard Book.   (I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't read every single Neil Gaiman novel, as much as I love his work; neither have I read all his short stories; a personal literary deficiency I'm going to mend).

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short, quick read - but packs a wallop.  I almost instantly fell into the book and couldn't get out - I had a really hard time putting it down.  I read it over the span of two evenings; I stayed up way too late last night finishing it (and I'm suffering for the lack of sleep now).

"I liked myths," says the young protagonist, a voracious reader.  "They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories.  They just were."  I think this describes Gaiman's intention (theme?).  There is unique world building here, set in what resembles our world, but with a mythology that seems to be completely created by Gaiman, in a very Tolkien-esque way.  Or rather, in a Diana Wynne Jones's way.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane reminded me many times of Jones, only crossed with Stephen King - but still, unmistakably Gaiman.

So who are these three ladies, actually?  The Fates?  The Norns?  Goddesses?  They seem to be all three and more.  Gaiman doesn't exactly borrow from actual mythology; rather, he takes actual mythological archetypes rather, melts them down like butter, and mixes them into the cake batter.  The cake then tastes of butter, but isn't butter.  Or, as the boy says, the story just is.  Quite beautiful writing, this.

The quote at the beginning of the book, from Maurice Sendak, in a book about a seven year old boy, is of course supposed to make you think of Where the Wild Things Are, because that is exactly where the boy has gone and come back, right?  Narnia is mentioned at least twice.  The most telling reference comes right after the boy talks of myth.  "Why didn't adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?"  Narnia, too, is another world where you go and come back.  Of course, coming back from Narnia changes you, makes you into something different.  There is a sacrificial lamb in Narnia as well.  Interesting parallels.

I think this is something that makes Gaiman a master storyteller for our age and time; he's brilliant at reference.  If he were a DJ, he'd be the god of sampling.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane has samples of Tom Bombadil and Tolkien (rustic ladies that live in an enclave that time forgets are very familiar to reader's of The Fellowship of the Ring) and samples of Earthsea (Ged brings the shadow into the world and is tasked with finding and defeating it), samples of Greek mythology (the Hempstock men could come straight from stories told around a 4,000 year old fire of gods and men) and samples of modern fantasy and horror.  Again, it's that idea of ingredients for a cake, all familiar, that combine together to form something new and wonderful.

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Never met a Neil Gaiman book I didn't like.  He is a master storyteller.  I particularly loved two things about this book.  The first is Gaiman's creation of a mythology for our world, using some familiar archetypal characters (the three wise women)in a new and unusual way.  The second is related to the first.  If the three wise women are allusions to ancient mythologies, his alludes to modern storytelling with flashes of brilliance.  Tolkien, Narnia, Diana Wynne Jones, Stephen King, Earthsea, Where the Wild Things Are - it's subtle, but they are there, hovering over the story like guardian angels, protecting, guiding.  Not one of those writers actually wrote this story; it's neither plagiarized or derivative but completely original. But they are there, all the same.  It's a wonderful story, just long enough, incredibly well written, perfectly plotted, scary as hell, and memorably packs a wallop.  I won't soon forget this one - but every Gaiman book has that magical quality!

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