Book review: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a fairy tale for adults

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 23, 2013

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE 

By Neil Gaiman

Headline/Paperback/248 pages/$25.68/Major bookstores/****

Every adult, at some point, wants to return to being a child. This is a truth that acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman weaves into a gentle and compelling story in his fifth solo novel, which was released last Tuesday.

After all, the world of children is often more comforting than the world of adults. Children may have little power over their daily routine or flinch from monsters under the bed, but every day is also full of limitless possibilities, including the chance that magic and all the stories in books are real.

The nameless narrator of The Ocean At The End Of The Lane begins his tale with the death of a parent, that terrifying loss which snatches the foundations out from one's life at any age. The narrator is middle-aged, with grown children of his own, but the funeral sends him reeling towards the comfort of childhood haunts and the memory of his seven-year-old self.

A lonely, bookish boy then, his life changed forever the night a man stole his father's car and took it towards nightmare territory - literally. The young boy's only hope of restoring order to his world lay with three women who owned a farm at the end of the lane.

Like him, they were a little out of place. The youngest, a girl named Lettie, called the duckpond on her farm an ocean. Her mother Ginnie knew things before they happened and the old grandmother, Mrs Hempstock, claimed to remember when the moon first appeared in the sky.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a fairy tale for adults, in the wellreceived pattern of the British author's other works. He is known for reacquainting adult readers with the grim true nature of myths and fables, in comics such as the Sandman series from the 1980s to mid-1990s, and novels such as American Gods (2001), which featured a pantheon of deities from various cultures making new lives as immigrants in America.

While older works, including his last novel Anansi Boys (2005), featured more characters and correspondingly richer mythology, this new book cuts deeper in many ways.

An irresistible lure for the long-term Gaiman fan is the not-so-subtle hint that the story is a fable about the author's own life. The nameless narrator of The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is an artist buffeted by personal sorrows, about 47 years old and recently divorced with grown children - just as Gaiman was at about the same age, six years ago.

"I make art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all," the narrator says.

What little the disclaimer at the end of the book does to discourage comparison - "The family in this book is not my own family..." - is completely overwhelmed by the June 18 blog post made by his wife of two years, musician Amanda Palmer. In her essay The Ocean At The End Of The Lane (A Book And Marriage Review), she calls the book "incredibly intimate", goes on about how "scary" it was for Gaiman to write and release it and adds: "He doesn't usually write things that are so personal."

A chance to peek at Gaiman's emotional landscape in rawer form than usual is not to be missed, but I must stress that this book charms on its own merits, whether or not one cares about the author himself. It is a delightful and slightly scary ride down into the childhood of an imaginative young boy and an equally satisfying look at the weary adult who survived it.

The obvious archetypes in The Ocean At The End Of The Lane are the Hempstocks, modelled either on the three Fates of Greek myth or the triplet pagan deity of maiden, mother and crone. The language used is simple, almost childishly free of polysyllables, with words strung together in the short, staccato bursts of a young boy speaking.

But language from Gaiman's pen is a slippery, wondrous thing, with meanings that seem obvious at one moment suddenly shedding their skin to reveal a deeper, darker layer beneath. It is akin to the difference between what a child sees and what the grown adult makes of his younger self's observations. A wormhole is at one moment the den of some crawling ground animal but from another perspective, a gate to space-time.

Like any trip down memory lane, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane leaves one comforted, refreshed and ready to go back to face the real world again for a bit. For, as Gaiman knows, one might be slightly nostalgic for past youth, but one of the great, underappreciated joys of adulthood is being able to go to bed without worrying about monsters hiding beneath.

Mostly.

If you like this, read: Illyria by Elizabeth Hand (2010, Viking, $18.35 at amazon.com), a World Fantasy Award-winning novel. Subtle and magical, this is a deeply felt coming- of-age tale about two cousins from a theatrical family, whose talent for the stage makes them a little dangerous.

akshitan@sph.com.sg