The Ocean at the End of the Lane

When Neil Gaiman said that his new book The Ocean at the End of the Lane was written for his wife, singer Amanda Palmer, I wasn't sure if I should read it. It seemed like I would be intruding on their personal lives, reading over their shoulders or eavesdropping under their windowsills. I know that's ridiculous – if it was that private he wouldn't have published it, and he certainly wouldn't be going on a signing tour, signing thousands of books at some (or all?) stops.

Oddly the book compounded my feelings of sneaky listening. There were parts that strongly reminded me of how it felt to be a young child, lying on the carpet in a patch of sun, listening to my mother and her friends talking. Not paying attention to the words, just relaxing while their voices droned in the background, feeling like everything was momentarily safe. Then there were the parts that were reminiscent of sitting frozen, late at night, listening to my parents fighting, terrified that they would turn their attention to us kids.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story about a man who reaches a crisis and goes back to a place that was important to him when he was young. Most of the story is told as a protracted flashback, as the protagonist sits next to a pond, reliving childhood memories, memories he didn't know he had. They start when he was seven years old and a suicide at his house triggered a series of fantastic events that brought danger to everyone he knew.

While the story is all about fantasy and sacrifice, the thing that stood out the most for me was its realistic look at child cruelty and the helplessness of the very young. Both of those go hand in hand with isolation; the more alone the child is the easier it is to abuse them and the harder it is for the child to bear it. A child that is already lonely, friendless, and happiest when reading, is a child that is easy to victimize and isolate even further.

The unnamed narrator says, “I do not miss childhood. But I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy.” (Emphasis mine.) As some of the creatures do in Stephen King's The Shining, an entity in The Ocean at the End of the Lane drives a wedge between the protagonist and the rest of his family, with horrifying results. Do these types of evil creatures add something to people to make them violent and terrible, or do they just release something that's already there? Either idea is deeply disturbing.

Isolation is a continuing theme, with the protagonist standing apart from his own story. While the story is in first person, there is still somehow a distance between the the storyteller and his story, almost like a piece of glass. There's a sense of him being outside of his own scenes, not deep within them. But maybe that makes sense. The narrator is rediscovering memories he had forgotten, memories of events that could trigger a dissociative disorder.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane brings a whole new level to the expression comfort food. Those who shelter and succor the protagonist also feed him all his favorite dishes. The lush, detailed descriptions of the food might be a little much for anyone who is on a strict diet. On the other hand, the big bad's cooking is the opposite of comforting, guaranteed to make you to nervous to eat.

My favorite thing about this novel is that it reminded me of reading the very best of children's books. Not just the books themselves, but the experience of reading them. Worrying about the characters, trying to think of a way they might get out of trouble, delighting in their world while blocking out my own. While The Ocean at the End of the Lane is meant to be an adult novel I would also have loved it when I was a kid.

You can read an excerpt here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a short story from Clarkesworld by Nnedi Okorafor called From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7. It's an odd story that kept me puzzled almost all of the way through. I wasn't sure if the protagonists are human, computer viruses, aliens or something so weird I couldn't even imagine it. It starts with two explorers, one heavily pregnant, exploring unknown terrain.