Challenges / Children and YA / Fantasy / Highly Recommended

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

ocean at the endIt’s been a good month for reading.  I had high expectations for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and it met them.  It’s a good fantasy story, but like Gaiman’s other books, it’s so well-written it transcends its genre.

The book tells the story of a forty year old man, visiting his childhood town, looking back at when he was 7 years old and he met a girl at the end of the lane named Lottie Hempstock.  It wasn’t until I was done with the book that I realized this narrator is never named (it did, however, bother me that he’s in town for a funeral and we’re not told who died).

Our narrator is an odd child, more comfortable with books than other children (I can’t imagine that!).  Gaiman had me at his first description of this child having a birthday party only no children show up.

Party games had been prepared by my mother but, because nobody was there, not even my sister, none of the party games were played, and I unwrapped the newspaper around the pass-the-parcel gift myself, revealing a blue plastic Batman figure.  I was sad that nobody had come to my party, but happy that I had a Batman figure, and there was a birthday present waiting to be read, a boxed set of the Narnia books, which I took upstairs.  I lay on the bed and lost myself in the stories.

I liked that.  Books were safer than other people anyway.

Of course, worse things are in store for our hero, who bravely faces terrifying monsters with the help of the “strange women” that live at the end of the lane.  Gaiman has a way of writing that really transcends whatever magical subject he’s writing about.  I’ve only read Coraline and The Graveyard Book, but he seems to get to the heart of how children think and feel.  Reading this book made me think, “it’s like he knows me and wrote this book just for me.” There are parts of this book that feel like standard fantasy, and then Gaiman writes something beautiful.

The thunder grumbled and rumbled into a low continuous roar, a lion pushed into irritability, and the lightning was flashing and flickering like a malfunctioning fluorescent tube.  In the flickers of light, I could see that the area of field I was in came to a point, with hedges on both sides, and no way through.

I don’t think he’s trying for subtlety here.  You’re meant to think about childhood memories, friends that disappeared, and searching for wonder — and strength — in the world.  I have to share this one quote, which I think I may tattoo somewhere:

“And did I pass?”

The face of the old woman on my right was unreadable in the gathering dusk.  On my left the younger woman said, “You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.”

Lately I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a good person. I’m not sure what it means to be a good enough daughter, or aunt, or friend, or even just a good person to the people I walk past on the sidewalk.  For example: A few weeks ago I waved down a car in a parking lot to tell a woman her sunglasses were sitting on the roof of her car.  Point for me.  But I also watched a woman trip and fall in the train station but didn’t help her up (she appeared to be okay).  Minus a point for me.

Then I think, if I’m worrying about how to be a good person, doesn’t that mean I must be one?  Or, does “trying” to be good just mean I’m not really putting in the effort?

But that one line makes me wonder if I’m setting a standard for myself I’m never going to reach.  You don’t pass or fail at being a person.

This is a lot to get from a single line in a book, but that’s how my mind works — and it’s one thing that makes Gaiman more than just a writer of fantasy (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

I saw in a reviewer comment that a lot of this book feels like stuff Gaiman has done before, and maybe that’s true.  I need to read a lot more of Gaiman’s books, and then I’ll let you know.

3 thoughts on “Review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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