I have been waiting for this book for what can only seem to a Neil Gaiman fan such as myself an eternity. I have been talking about it to my friends, telling them how fantastic it will be, and how I couldn’t wait for it to finally be released. And then a thought crawled to my mind: what if it wasn’t going to be as good as I expected it to be? What if I was getting hyped about it only to get disappointed? The day I finally got the book I couldn’t wait to get home, so I started reading it on the train, horrified by a literary as well as a personal self-esteem catastrophe (I had been spending my days talking about the book and recommending it to virtually everyone I met). I am here to say (write) that I was wrong in thinking that this book could ever be bad or even mediocre. Oh so wrong….
Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane is everything I was looking forward to and much more. What I was expecting was a high level of craft. Gaiman’s writing leaves me hypnotized, drawing me into a fantasy world that is so delicately created it almost sounds plausible. As a literature student I always enjoyed paying special attention not only to what he writes, but HOW he writes it. There is that special feeling, that ‘’magical’’ something in the air as you read the book.
The storyline is something special altogether: it follows the story of a seven year old boy, with all his fears, dreams, and childhood bliss. The protagonist is now a middle aged man remembering what happened when he was seven. This creates a very interesting dimension to the actual storytelling, since it is narrated by an adult remembering the time when he was seven. As children often do, the boy gets in a lot of trouble, this time in the realm of the fantastic. I believe Gaiman always managed to paint a beautiful picture of a child’s mind (The Graveyard Book comes to mind here). He doesn’t show us the ignorant, childish, funny children oh- so- present in other books. If we are to be honest and remember our own very young years, we were pretty smart, not always saying what we thought, not always thinking what the adults thought we were. Ender’s Game is also a book which, although not written by Gaiman, is equally good at exploring a child universe: a fantastic place filled with both angels and demons.
Speaking of demons, I found the villain of the book very intriguing. I never really like black and ”white characters”, so this was straight down my alley. Ursula Monkton (what a great name for a negative character) is something special. It’s hard to talk about her without giving out spoilers, but I will be brave and say that I never perceived her as a complete evil character. She starts by wanting to give people what they want (which is mostly money), and somehow ends up wanting more herself. A very grey zone for a villain (especially since she even likes wearing grey 🙂 ).
There are several themes I followed throughout the book. Perhaps I read too much into it, but I can’t help it, and some are worthy of being mentioned here. One obvious theme Gaiman explores here is that of economy. The element that starts the trouble in our little boy’s world dies as a result of gambling. Like mentioned before, the monster admits in giving people what they want. For someone this can be mistress, but for the majority is money. The economy theme is present here, I believe, as an obvious negative thing since money is something that the monster is trying to spread. But together with money comes trouble which sets in motion the action of the book. The boy experiences for the first time in his life what it means to compromise because of a poor economic situation: he needs to give up his lovely own room and start sharing one with his sister, he is not allowed to waste food, and he is scared that his parents will have to sell their house. It is a painful picture of what economical trouble looks like from a child’s perspective.
Another theme is of course friendship and that the trust one should have in their friends. The moment things start going very wrong for the boy is the moment he distrusts his friend Lettie and lets go of her hand, although being strongly advised against doing that. He keeps repeating throughout the book that he will always trust her, which proves to be his saving in the end.
Parents are of course a nuisance for our little hero, as they tend to never understand what is really happening, belittle him, and get tricked by pretty much everyone around them. They are background characters, never really present in the life of the boy unless it is to restrain him or tell him what to do. The theme of parents that are oblivious to what their children want is indeed a strong one from which many people could learn much.
I liked the book for the reasons above and many others that will never find enough space in one blog post. Except the great action and entertaining characters there was always a hint that this was much more than just another good Neil Gaiman book. I got the feeling it is highly personal. The way it was narrated, the way the words followed one another, the way small things stood out (like the back cover picture of the boy sitting on a drainpipe, which I know is in fact a picture of Neil Gaiman as a child). It could just be my own wrong feeling, but I took the hints and therefore found the book even more enjoyable.
Children do tend to see things bigger than they really are. A flee can be a monster; a pond can be an ocean. They can fantasize about adventures, witches, monsters, and secret worlds. At the end of the day, why tell them they are wrong? Why cut short a world full of wonders when in the end they end up just like the parents in the story, stressed about money, and ignorant to their children’s wishes? Growing up can wait. But since we are already here, let’s go back to fantasizing about those secret worlds and start reading the Ocean at the end of the Lane.