Having never read any of Neil Gaiman’s work before, I jumped on the opportunity to grab The Ocean at the End of the Lane for a decent price at B&N last week. As I said in my review of Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, it takes serious skill to be able to write a full-fledged story and pack it down into under 200 pages and have it turn out great.
Ocean is the tale of an unnamed seven-year-old boy, whom in his childlike ignorance of the world gets caught up in a mysteriously dark and haunting sequence of events that he can’t even begin to comprehend. He meets a girl, Lettie Hempstock, who lives down the lane, and she becomes more or less his only friend. One of their first conversations together involve the boy asking Lettie her age:
“How old are you, really?” I asked.
I thought for a bit. Then I asked, “How long have you been eleven for?”
She smiled at me.
Many times the he asks the Hempstocks their ages, and every time he gets a smile and no answer. When faced with situations like this or any of the other various supernatural occurrences, the boy almost shrugs it off as normal, thinking of how much of the world he doesn’t yet understand, whereas an adult would act completely differently – so having a bookish child and the childlike ignorance as well as the sense of wonder and exploration that come with him fit the story infinitely better than any adult protagonist would.
Gaiman paints a very magical world in Sussex, with every word in its place in the fairly dark tale that Ocean is. Many encounters with the supernatural were particularly haunting, and the sinister babysitter, Ursula Monkton, was brilliantly depicted as an entity of evil, and it’s a reminder for all of us who had a bad babysitter as a kid. The Hempstocks have been on the lane for a long time, longer than any mortal would survive, yet nobody knows it.
Ocean is a particularly enchanting and magically dark tale of heroism, sacrifice, and friendship. It’s the type of story that would have had me unable to sleep at night had I read it when I was a kid because of its realness, despite its magical nature. The trio of Hempstocks with Lettie at the fore were wonderful characters. The story is labeled as adult, though there’s only one fairly fade-to-black sex scene that would make it so, and it’s easily suitable for most ages.
Despite the critics calling the work groundbreaking, I didn’t see it as such, but it is apparent to me now why people love Neil Gaiman, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane has sold me on his work with his skillful writing and capacity for telling a captivating story.
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