Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

A lovely book, and lovely evocation of what it is like to be a child in a large world with rules a child doesn't really understand. And that applies to the world of adults as much as to the supernatural world that is the actual story.

The unnamed narrator has returned to his childhood landscape in Sussex. Now middle-aged, he is there for a funeral, but cannot bring himself to attend the reception afterwards. He finds himself at the old Hempstock farmhouse, where he slowly recovers the memory of what happened to him when he was seven, and he met Lettie Hempstock, who was eleven and had been for a very long time.

The titular ocean is a duck pond on the Hempstock farm which Lettie called her ocean. Of course, it is too small to be an ocean, because duck ponds are duck pond-sized, and oceans are ocean-sized. So says the narrator's father, and the book is designed to prove that practical view wrong. Because things are so much deeper and broader than they appear on the surface, and the Hempstocks' pond is only one of many such things.

This book has a lot in common with Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books; the bucolic English setting, the uncanny things that lie beneath the surface of what can be seen, the way that the ordinary world is only a small part of the universe that it contains. Even the vague descriptions of the Big Bad are evocative of the way Pratchett only sketches things that aren't of this world, leaving the rest to the reader's imagination.

There are also "hunger birds" that bear a striking resemblance to the "reapers" from Doctor Who (the episode called "Father's Day").

However, I think this is fair to ascribe to a generic "English fairy tale" common ancestor, rather than any sort of plagiarism. Because on a small island with so much history, there IS a lot that is hidden under the surface, and it's more a cultural sensibility than a specific borrowing.

There are parts of this book that are absolutely stunning, mostly the specifically observed moments rather than the over-arching supernatural elements. The boy's fear and panic when his father dumps him into a cold bath and seems willing to drown him (the book blames this on the Big Bad, but maybe not?) There is a scene of cold-blooded practicality when the boy tries to dig something out of the sole of his foot that made me wince in sympathy and horror. I would have looked away if it had been a movie, but that doesn't work with a book!

My favorite part is probably the end, and the kindness Mrs. Hempstock shows to the middle-aged narrator. Being a child is hard, even when one is already grown up.

Definitely worth reading.

I do have a serious objection to the image on the cover, however. Both the seven year old narrator and Lettie get submerged in the ocean. Neither of them is a twenty-something woman wearing a hospital gown.