Friday, July 26, 2013

Book review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before I get into my review, I'd also like to highly recommend the blog entry from Amanda Palmer that I link to. Actually, you should just read anything she writes. It's a totally different experience from reading what her husband writes, but it's glorious all the same. I just enjoy very much what she wrote about her relationship with Neil in that specific entry. 

I have a bit of a relationship crush on Neil and Amanda. I will explain... 

Sometimes I see two people in a relationship (in this case, a married one), and I think to myself, "That's the kind of thing I want." I just dig what they have together. And I understand that the actual, real relationship (the part that I don't see from the outside) has its flaws, arguments, mistakes and problems. I just envy that they found another person who understands them, and the way they approach the world, other people, their respective art, etc. Which is: with compassion, encouragement, positivity and creativity. I love that. I want that.

I'm also a big fan of couples who operate outside of traditional domesticity. People who don't let a relationship, a marriage, or even kids change who they essentially are or hold them down. It just becomes part of them and their story. Neil and Amanda have many times when they don't see each other because they're each off doing amazing things, but I find it encouraging that they make it work. That who they are, the things they do, the love they have, all become woven into each other; but there's still an independence and freedom that they each have to do the things they need to do. Again: I know they're not perfect people, all relationships have their issues. I just like what I see from the outside and I find it inspiring. 

My point is, this book is part of their story. So here are my thoughts on that.

Author Neil Gaiman’s wife, musician Amanda Palmer, says in her blog that there is a certain amount of distance between an artist’s reality, and the art that they create. This distance varies from artist to artist, ranging from art that’s lightly mixed with pieces of reality still recognizable, to art that’s fully smooth and blended, leaving little indication of its true ingredients. Amanda describes herself as the type of artist who only lets things “mix very slightly,” whereas Neil is the type to crank things up into a full puree. 

 In “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” Gaiman’s first adult novel in eight years, the author leaves his story a little less well blended than usual, using recognizable parts of his own childhood to weave a spell-binding, fantastical story about a man remembering the strange, frightening and magical set of events that occurred when he was only seven years old. 

 When he was a boy, Neil dreamed up a family called the Hempstocks, that lived on an empty farm at the end of the real lane he lived on. In “Ocean,” our narrator and stand-in for the author recalls how, as a young boy, he was befriended by eleven year old Lettie Hempstock, who lives on the fictional version of the farm with her mother Ginny Hempstock, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock. An odd set of events are put into motion by a man renting a room from the narrator’s parents, and only the Hempstocks can help set things right again. 

 The novel evokes a kind of earthy folk magic, and that’s what the Hempstocks use to clean up messes like the one this story is about. It’s a magic where nursery rhymes have power, protection means keeping hold of your friend’s hand, and editing out a piece of time only takes cutting and stitching back together a piece of cloth. The monsters are not really monsters, but they are bothersome, mischievous creatures with their own needs and purposes. Gaiman is highly skilled at creating these kinds of stories, ones in which events are both fantastic and well-grounded at the same time. It’s enchanting, and prickles our imagination, but is told in the same low-key and matter-of-fact way that Lettie informs our boy-narrator of her farm pond that’s actually an ocean. And we completely accept it. How could we resist?

 If you’re already a Neil Gaiman fan, you won’t need much encouragement to pick up this latest novel. It’s also recommended for any readers who enjoy magical yet realistic stories, the type that recall the best kind of folk and fairy tales that feel both otherworldly and yet somehow true at the same time. 

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