Monday, June 20, 2016

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Even when his stories are slightly less than satisfying, Neil Gaiman's prose still manages to be absorbing and beautiful. And, as I listened to the Audible version of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman's voice is equally absorbing. He doesn't attempt any funny tricks or give each character a different voice. He simply reads and his voice is magic. As I listened while the narrator (not named) is eating a honeycomb soaked in milk, my mouth watered from Gaiman's evocative prose. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a novel that's not quite a novel (pretty short) and that's not quite young adult and not quite adult. It's a novel that is anchored by a somewhat terrifying, enchanting middle, but left wanting at both ends.

What begins much like a memoir, transforms into a tale of magical realism when the narrator meets a family called the Hempstocks. This family of three women, Gran Hempstock, Ginnie Hempstock, and Ginnie's daughter, Lettie Hempstock, have extraordinary power, able to listen in on conversations from a distance and suggest thoughts and words and actions into the minds of others. The narrator barely bats an eye at this magic. At seven years old, magic is a given. He befriends Lettie and she takes him on some adventures, one of which gets him into some trouble. The novel's slow unfolding eventually rewards patient readers when we finally meet the novel's villain, the wonderfully named Ursula Monkton.

Ursula is not what she seems, and only the narrator knows this. To everyone else in his family, she is a godsend. His mother sees her as the perfect babysitter; his sister claims her to be her best friend; and his dad finds her to be excitingly attractive. When the narrator doesn't fall in line like his family, Ursula lets her power show, entrapping him in the house. Behind her beauty lurks a powerful terror. These scenes are Gaiman at his hauntingly best, and Ursula does more than enchant his family, but the reader as well.

As evocative as Ursula Monkton is, the rest of the novel fails to match her charm. The narrator is a dull, powerless boy, and it is in the vein of modern stories that the main character passively witnesses extraordinary things happening to and/or around him, but he never actively engages in the action. Gaiman's purpose, I believe, is to show how powerless and fragile is man when faced against more powerful forces, but the issue in this case is that he fails to provide a well-developed character who has emotional weight.

Adding to the sense of tedium is the use of cliches throughout this work, something I don't quite expect from Gaiman. These are not obvious cliches, but there were many instances where, while listening, I could predict the next sentence because it was the sort of thing that had been written many times before. When the narrator tells Ursula Monkton, for example, that he isn't afraid of her, it isn't much of a surprise when he needlessly reveals to the reader that he is, in fact, afraid of her. Still, the brevity of the novel means it won't take up too much of your time, and Gaiman does provide some satisfaction even as you wonder if it is a necessary story.

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