Interleaves: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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Welcome back to Interleaves, fellow persons of the book, where today we are going to look at a dark contemporary fairytale (of sorts) by a modern master of the genre – the one and only Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman is an artist about whom I have mixed feelings, for a range of reasons with which I shall not bore you. Nonetheless, he is the author of one of the creepiest and most effective short stories ever written (“The Problem of Susan”), not to mention the man responsible for converting me to fandom of graphic novels, with the inimitable Sandman series – the comics that convinced me that this was a serious art form for adults, as well as being a delight of childhood.

I’ve read much, but not all, that Gaiman has written, and rarely come away completely disappointed, although I have always felt that he is strongest in short / mixed media forms or in collaboration, with some of his solo novels struggling a bit to hold the course. (American Gods is the clear exception here).  So when I saw that he had a book on the nominee list for this year’s Nebula Awards, I was interested without being highly excited. The Nebula Awards, in case you have not heard of them (I do not assume everyone is quite as nerdy as me :-) are the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s annual awards for speculative fiction. Voted by writer / members only, they tend to throw up quite writerly winners, and I have in the past found them an excellent source of new books.

I have rather foolishly committed to trying to read all the Nebula nominated novels before the 15 May prize announcements (that’s 8 books to cover, in a time period in which I also have the Stella and Miles Franklin nominees to read, and working and parenting fulltime …. hmmm). I decided, therefore, to kick off my Nebula journey with Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, just because a) this is a writer I have enjoyed in the past and b) the precis sounded interesting and less bloodthirsty than some of the other nominees.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, essentially, a tale about childhood, the scars it leaves and the way it shapes and moulds us. That Gaiman chooses a pseudo-mythic fantasy lens to give form to his 7-year-old narrator’s experiences is almost immaterial in some ways; the book, to me, is about what childhood feels like, what it is like, and about how things that happen when we are young stay with us, in one form or another, forever.

The plot is reasonably simple, albeit scattered like crazy paving across a distorted landscape that teeters continuously between the hyper-real and the mythic / imagined. It kicks off with the suicide in the family car of the lodger that has been staying with the narrator’s family, and his subsequent meeting of Lettie Hemphill and her family at their strange, out-of-time-and-space farm at the end of the lane. Lettie’s friendship with the narrator brings enormous danger to bear on the whole community, through a series of fantastical and monstrous events, but ultimately the whole Hemphill family – Lettie, mother Ginnie, and grandmother Old Mrs Hemphill – prove redemptive in ways that are unexpectedly moving, if also quite standard for this kind of fantasy / myth.

The strongest elements of the book without question are Gaiman’s enormous capacity for writing authentic and painful childhood; his soft and sure touch with character and relationships; and his clever facility for blurring the lines between real and mythic, “true” and imagined, which keeps the reader very slightly off-kilter throughout, never completely sure whether the mythic / magical components of the story are real or a 7-year-old’s way of making sense of a frightening and disordered series of events.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the fraught relationship that emerges between the narrator and his father, especially after the advent of the monster-nanny, Ursula. The terror of the abuse inflicted by the father feels real, all too real, all too savage; but what do we make of his post-hoc interpretation that his father was under Ursula’s mind control at the time? Is the narrator seeing clearly a vast mythic magical world lying underneath and all around the ostensible world, which adults don’t see? Or is his 7 year old mind, already steeped in fantasy and magic-mysticism through his immersion in books, already processing trauma from the finding of the dead man in the car, applying an acceptable and meaningful gloss to a situation that is otherwise unbearable in its cruel hyper-reality? I was actually disappointed that Gaiman, in the end, resolved this question; I thought the ambiguity around it was one of the best-achieved and most thought-provoking parts of the plot.

The fantasy components of the plot were, I felt, less successful overall than the reality-based (or relationship-based) elements. I was trying to think, as I was planning this review, what Gaiman’s mythic construct reminded me of, and I think it’s H.P Lovecraft , with all his “elder intelligences” and space monsters themes as expressed in the Cthulhu Mythos. (If you have never made Lovecraft’s acquaintance, I’d recommend it, when you are not feeling paranoid or depressed. His cosmic horrors are convincingly spooky, but not for the faint-hearted). Gaiman’s power / magicks are well enough elaborated, but not horrible enough to quite resonate the chilly thrills of Lovecraft, and not quite original enough to avoid unfavourable comparison with the source material. It’s not as if Lovecraftian milieu themes can’t be done well – see Jorge Luis Borges’ “There are More Things”, for example – but this isn’t really doing it well, or at least not as well as it could have been done. And with cosmic horrors and elder intelligences, there is a wafer-thin line between gothically brilliant and schockily hokey. I’m not persuaded this lands on the right side.

All in all, this is a good book, with a few elements of greatness, but it is, I felt, less than it had the capacity to be, and it read as incompletely achieved vision. I feel pretty sure that Gaiman will one day write a cracking novel, a monumental triumph; heaven knows he’s talented enough. Until he does, books like this one are still well worth your time.

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