Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Do you like fairy tales? I'm talking real-deal fairy tales: mysterious, otherworldly, and dark. If this is your cup of tea (it's certainly mine), then Neil Gaiman has a book for you. Several, really, but we'll stick to his latest: The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It's a slim novel, slightly autobiographical, and written in Gaiman's signature understated style, but don't let the sparseness of the prose fool you into thinking it lacks depth. This book will stay with you for awhile, and it may have you plumbing the depths of your own childhood in search of some not-so-golden memories.

In the book, an unnamed narrator, a middle-aged man, returns to his boyhood home in Sussex, England, to attend a funeral. After driving around a bit afterwards to kill time before putting in an appearance at his sister's, he finds himself looking for the house in which he spent several of his childhood years. Of course, he knows it's not there anymore. It was torn down and replaced with the "new house" his parents had built and later sold. But while everything else in the old neighborhood seems to have changed, there is one thing from his past that remains standing: the red-brick farmhouse that belongs to the Hempstocks, his beautifully strange neighbors from long ago who in fact still live there, and who appear to be human but are of much older, magic stock. And upon visiting that comforting house and the pond that sits out back in the farmyard, our narrator begins to remember the inexplicable and, frankly, terrifying events of his seventh year--the year no one came to his birthday party, the year his kitten was killed, the year he learned that magic and monsters are real. And the year he met Lettie Hempstock, the plucky girl who saved his life. 

I was a very sensitive kid, quite awkward, painfully shy, and far more comfortable around books than people, so I identified quite a bit with the narrator as he related the events--fantastic and horrific though they were--of that fateful year from his childhood. But Lettie? I loved her almost immediately! She's the sort of friend everybody needs and few have, the one who won't hesitate to push you behind her when the monsters come, the one who squeezes your hand reassuringly and says, "I'm not afraid of them." And believe me, you'll never have to worry about her letting you go.    

The Ocean at the End of the Lane unfolds like a dream you just can't quite seem to wake from, tender in parts and terrifying in others. Read it. Yes, it's a strange tale, but I've come to expect wonderful things from Neil Gaiman, and he has yet to disappoint me.

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