My relationship with Neil Gaiman has been an interesting one.
First, I love his voice. Not his actual voice, his writing voice. He writes in a uniquely Neil Gaiman way that no one else could ever do properly.
Second, he wrote one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who ever, The Doctor’s Wife.
Third, I haven’t liked all of his books. I read The Graveyard Book a few months ago, and while it was overall interesting, I wasn’t in love with it. I tried to listen to Coraline on audiobook and got a bit bored, though there is every chance that was because I wasn’t in the mood to read a supernatural children’s book and not because it was a bad book. I started American Gods, but never finished. The rest of his books have yet to make it to my TBR pile.
Fourth, he is one of my favorite writers. Now, you may be thinking, “but…you just said…huh?” That’s fair, but let me explain. I spend a good chunk of time watching author interviews. Listening to writers talk about writing gives me warm feelings. I don’t know a lot of writers personally, so interviews are my lifeline, my way of realizing that other people in the world feel the same way as I do. Neil Gaiman’s interviews are the best. He has said some of the most profound things about writing, seemingly on the spot, and he inspires me to read more, write more, and never be afraid to take a chance. So, I took a chance on The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is childhood. The wonder, the terror, the joy, the innocence. Ocean put words to feelings I’ve always had, but never knew how to express. And to me, that is the definition of good writing.
Was it the best book I’ve ever read? No. Very few books are, after all. But was it beautiful? Was it suspenseful and scary and all too familiar? Absolutely.
A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse where she once lived, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
The biggest selling point to Ocean is its length. It sits at just under 180 pages, making it a very quick read. In fact, even if you only read for thirty minutes before bed, you could have it done within a week. Very low stress, very low risk.
The book opens with an epigraph from an interview with Art Spiegelman: “I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Never in history has there been a more fitting epigraph for a novel. The entire book is an adult narrator remembering his childhood—dissecting how such unbelievable things could have happened in his life, and pulling apart the relationship between adults and children. All too often adults see children as oblivious—small creatures with small brains who don’t understand anything about the world around them. If Ocean accomplishes one thing, it is debunking that myth. We see the narrator grappling with very adult situations and emotions, oftentimes better than the adults around him. One of my favorite quotes from the book is:
“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
Oceans is a reverse coming of age novel. Rather than showing a child growing up, it shows a grown-up becoming a child again. And, despite what the world says, it’s a very good thing.
“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”