On Wednesday, June 19th, 2013 I received my copy of Neil Gaiman’s new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane at Symphony Space in New York, right after hearing Erin Morgenstern (author of The Night Circus, which I have never read but may pick up in the future) do a little interview with the author himself, followed by two readings from the novel and a little Q&A.
I met the author, as in, I approached the author afterward to sign my copy of the new book, sign my copy of American Gods, and thank him for all the writing advice he gives on his blog, to which he responded something very humble along the lines of least I could do, just doing my part to help, I like to help anyway I can. I was honestly so tired and my feet and back were so ache filled that I can’t remember exactly what he said.
Immediately on the train ride home I began reading the novel, and then proceeded to finish it over the next two mornings.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is definitely a Neil Gaiman novel, and by that I mean it is a great novel. Every time I read a Neil Gaiman novel I think to myself This is THE Neil Gaiman novel. Really everyone of his novels is THE Neil Gaiman novel and so is this one. If you don’t like Neil Gaiman novels I am not sure this one will convince you otherwise. I’ll try to avoid spoilers but be warned I want to talk about this book so I may not try very hard.
When I think of writing about this novel it’s not actually about the novel itself, but what it makes me remember about childhood. On stage at Symphony Space Neil Gaiman referred to the “indignities of being a child” and “being able to enjoy the small things” and that is this novel evoke, memories of childhood. I remember telling a teacher I was being picked on in 1st grade to the response of having to “deal with it”, when my father used to take me to McDonalds after religion class for the Halloween toys they had in their Happy Meals, of my sister telling me that voting in the Kids Presidential Election by calling into Nickelodeon didn’t actually help elect the President of the United States, of how delicious it was when I’d eat two slice of pizza with Garlic Salt on it while my family ate Chinese food because all I would eat as a kid was Pizza and Steak for dinner.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the book evokes memory, as it is about memory. The unnamed narrator is retelling a story of his childhood, filled with books, making new friends, fears of getting in trouble, delicious food, magic, monsters, and whimsy that only Neil Gaiman wizard-like use of language can summon. This is definitely an adult novel, but not necessarily only for adults. It’s themes definitely carries with it something a child would not understand, nor would a teenager maybe fully appreciate it.
I shouldn’t say that, what I mean is, as a teenager I probably wouldn’t appreciate it. You know how it is, petty problems, thinking you’re invincible. I don’t think teenage me would quite know what to do with this book.
A fear I had as a kid that Neil Gaiman writes so well is the fear of getting into trouble, of not being believed because you were a kid, of being told you’re lying when you’re telling the truth. When I was young I was good as much as I possibly could because I always thought I would be yelled at. Something about yelling as a kid filled me with fright and I don’t even think I was yelled at that much. What I would see is my sister being yelled, being the rebellious teenager she was, by my mother and thinking there is no way I ever want that to happen to me. I used to defend my sister on car rides with my parents in hope that she would get yelled at less as well, thinking it had to be the worst thing that could happen to you. When teachers yelled at me, I became a mess, thinking oh no, they’re going to tell my parents which will lead to more yelling.
There’s nothing more stressful for a kid then when you tell the truth and no one will listen, and the narrator of The Ocean… goes through that as well as I did. I remember my cousin cursing when he was three years old, which at five I was always taught was very bad to do so of course I told my parents. He immediately said that I was in fact the one cursing and that I was just trying to get him in trouble before he could get me in trouble. I could still see the look on my mom and aunt’s eyes deciding on who to believe even though I was the one telling the truth. Like me, but not like me, the narrator tries to tell his parents the truth about what is happening around him only to find himself in deeper and more dire trouble as the novel progresses.
There’s quote in the novel about myths, it goes like this…
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just *were*.”
and like myths, all the magic in the book doesn’t need to be explained, it just is and it works perfectly. You just accept it for what it is, you become convinced that there is indeed an ocean at the end of the lane where the narrator lived growing up.
Enjoying the small things in the book isn’t just about food, it’s about a certain part of your bedroom made just for you, that small crack of light in your open door that let you read past your bedtime, that secret way through your backyard that you think only you are aware of, but also it’s about food.
Now, this is coming from a guy who has no complaints about George R.R. Martin’s description of food in his A Song of Ice and Fire series but the food in The Ocean… is quite different from a kids perspective. There’s such a joy with every little thing the narrator eats that you sometimes forget as an adult. You’re not thinking about calories, fat content, or worry you’re eating too much or too little. It’s just a matter of being hungry, and then enjoying the food you’re given whether it’s good or not.
This is definitely THE Neil Gaiman book, and so are the rest of them. If you don’t like Neil Gaiman books then this isn’t the book for you. If you’ve never read a Neil Gaiman book and can remember what it is like to be a child or want to remember then I highly suggest picking this book up. If you’re not interested then…