The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was one of the lucky readers who lived close enough to an event to see Neil Gaiman read from this book in person, answer questions, and then sign books, mine included. If you want to read my write-up about the event, it's in this blog entry.
Even without the excitement of meeting the author on his last US signing tour, though, I would've enjoyed this book. It's what I've always waited for in a fantasy novel, but I never realized this is what I lacked.
The book is short, and therefore can be a quick read. But if you read it quickly, you lose the flow of the language, the layers of complexity, the characterizations. The narrator is a middle-aged man, looking back at an event that happened when he was seven but had forgotten until that very moment. The narration has the honesty only a seven-year-old can have, filtered through years of experience and revelation. The young boy is often confused about things the adult understands, which evokes a certain wistfulness and melancholy at the same time.
The character is taking refuge after a funeral (the text never says for who, but, based on the focus of the story, I think it's his father). He goes to the end of the lane, where a girl four years his senior once lived. She called the duck pond "the ocean," and it's gazing at that pond that the unnamed narrator remembers that strange summer. His family had slipped in financial status, and had to take in boarders. One such boarder kills himself in the family car, which leads to the boy's meeting the Hempstock women. It's a grandmother, mother, and daughter (crone, mother, maiden), and the girl's name is Lettie. He goes with her to help put to rest a spirit who's been stirred up by the death, but something goes wrong, and a malevolent woman shows up at his house. He has to use every ounce of courage and strength his little seven-year-old self can muster to banish her, and, of course, there are consequences.
Neil Gaiman has said that he feels there isn't so much as a word wasted in this book, and I agree. Everything that's in there is essential. Every character needs to be there, every event, every detail, all shape this narrative. There are some things that go unwritten or unspoken, and the narrative shapes around those, too, defined by the space they left behind.
I read the hardcover of this book, but I intend to get the audiobook when I want to reread it. I think that could only add to the experience. I think both paper (or electronic) and audio are necessary experiences to absorb this story.
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