I just finished the newest Neil Gaiman book. I might still be weeping. It’s so good, you guys. So, so good. I’ve been looking forward to it for a really long time. Haven’t read a brand-new Gaiman since The Graveyard Book, I guess. Can it have been that long? I suppose it must have been.
When it arrived in the mail I did the obligatory fangirl happy dance, then stopped and really looked at it. It’s small, much more svelte than I would have imagined. But lovely. I usually take the dust jackets off of hardcovers when I read them because I’m so clumsy. Better that my coffee-colored fingerprints and dings and scrapes be on the cover itself where no one will judge me. Thank Saint Jerome for dust jackets, man. But this one I left on. It’s pretty, simple, and silky-feeling. Much like the story itself.
Oh! Such a clumsy transition! Oh! She’s such a hack.
Well, you’re not wrong. But neither am I.
As is often the case with Gaiman’s work, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is difficult to sum up. Basically, there’s a little boy, a very extremely British little boy, who becomes involved in some strange goings-on after his family’s lodger commits suicide in their car. While his father and the police sort out the details, he goes down the road with the little neighbor girl to her family’s farm to wait. The Hempstock ladies (daughter, mother, and grandmother) are all terribly odd and seem to have a sort of otherworldly knowledge of what’s really happening. And not just what’s happening with the dead guy and the other strange occurrences, but about what’s causing them and how that force is not of our reality. Our hero befriends the little girl and works with her and her family to try to get to the bottom of the whole thing, bending universes and using age-old magics. But that makes it sound cheesy, like any other tired old fantasy story. And it’s not, not even a little. Gaiman gets lumped into the fantasy category merely because there’s not really a word for what he does.
Despite my ridiculous attempt to be brief in describing this story, there’s so much going on. There’s a lot of cosmic depth here. But, paradoxically, it’s so simple, so elegant. The narrator’s being a seven-year-old boy makes everything seem perfectly logical. Of course a monster from another plane of existence is hiding in his house disguised as an evil nanny. And of course she can only be defeated by the three cow-farming ladies down the road who are actually all-powerful embodiments of the creative nature of the universe. And of course they need his help. How could it be any other way? To a seven-year-old these things would be horrifying, sure, but they would still make some degree of sense because at that age we haven’t yet learned to not believe. We see and we accept and we move on. We work with what we’re given. If that happens to be magic from the dawn of time, all the better. In that innocence, there’s a kind of sweetness of spirit, a bravery, and an iron will that we gradually lose as we grow up. We cover it over with layers of information, experience, pain, and cynicism. Things don’t get hard, they get not easy.
Gaiman has always made “childlike” a good thing and not an insult. Maybe it’s because he’s a father who so delights in the weird little minds of children. As far as I can remember, in none of his books does he condescend to kids. He and his characters seem to really appreciate their worldviews, which can be particularly handy in the type of fantasy where realities layer and overlap and protrude into ours. (My grandmother used to say that only kids and cats can see ghosts. I wonder if Gaiman’s gran told him the same thing.) And the interactions between the children and the adults is really interesting in this book. The main character seems to view adults not as people who are like him in any way, but as a kind of other species. I think a lot of us did that. It’s unfortunate that so often as adults we see childhood as preparation for life and not as a part of life. We forget that when we were small we were whole people with fully-formed, if skewed, perspectives and opinions. So when the narrator trusts the grownup Hempstock ladies completely and from the get-go, it furthers the reader’s sense that they’re not human.
And he’s a bookish little guy, too. One of those who seems lonely or shut off from the world, and finds comfort in his stories. This immersion in fiction adds another layer to his immediate acceptance of supernatural things going on all around him. But it also feels deeply personal. We can easily imagine baby Neil Gaiman sitting alone with a book after no one showed up to his birthday party. Ugh, I just made myself sad. It’s okay, Neil (can I call you Neil?). Same thing happened to me. I think a lot of us can probably relate, actually. Sad little kids are like the TARDIS, they’re bigger on the inside. There’s so much going on in the heads of children who have only themselves to talk to. It’s what makes us interesting grownups. Or complete nutjobs. Either way, it’s better to be sad and fascinating than happy and boring, I suppose. Maybe. Sometimes.
So, yeah. Go grab The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a tiny book, but it reads like a massive masterwork. (Damn, I wasted that TARDIS reference, didn’t I? Such a hack!) And while you’re at it, read all of Gaiman’s other stuff because it’s bloody fantastic and I’m tired of hamfistedly trying to explain his awesome to people. Just get on the bandwagon, guys. Seriously. It’s the best bandwagon ever.