A fabulous atmospheric fantasy novel by one of the recognised modern masters of the genre. 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' is a brilliantly written story - gripping from the first pages, with interesting characters and a narrator you can root for, and a gloriously dark edge underlying it. The narrator is a middle aged man who revisits his childhood home and remembers an extraordinary series of events that happened when he was aged seven. The book evokes the feelings of childhood perfectly, particularly the fear and helplessness, but without running into problems with the narrative voice by having the narrator an adult looking back.
It is a 'plot driven' novel where plenty happens and it is often exciting and hard to put down. But there is a strong emotional undercurrent, and many genuinely poignant moments. It's very well balanced and manages to tug at your heart strings without actually appearing to do so, as you're so caught up in the drama.
Even readers who don't usually go for 'fantasy' books would likely enjoy this - it's accessibly written, and its themes of loss of innocence and taking on responsibility are universal. It's also a thumping good yarn that is hard to put down. The length is short - under 150 pages, and the pacing perfect. Gaiman is good at building up suspense and the middle section in particular had me jumping at shadows. There's a creepy, unsettling feeling that is created, and the ending is moving.
Although it's a book about a child and childhood, it wouldn't be suitable for young children. However I think teenagers from around 12 upwards would appreciate it and enjoy it. There are some mild sexual references and it's a bit scary, but no more so than many other books for this age group. Fans of Terry Practchett's novels for younger readers would almost certainly like this, and readers who enjoyed this but haven't tried Pratchett should add 'The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents' and 'The Wee Free Men' to their reading lists.
Here's the confession. I fell out of love with Fantasy when I grew up. I read plenty when I was a child and in my teens. I was hooked by The Magus (is that Fantasy?) and I fell under the spell of Lord of the Rings. And then...I don't know...after then I found all fantasy a total nonsense. Too many elves and characters with unpronounceable names with the power of Magick. (It has to have that 'k' apparently to make it sound ancient and wise.
That's not to say I haven't touched any Fantasy since then. I have enjoyed novels with an element of the strange and disturbing from time to time but not the fairies and elves sort.Having said that, I have recently found Alan Garner and was blown away by The Stone Book Quartet.
Another confession. I have never read any Neil Gaiman. In fact, I only got to hear about him when he wrote one or two episodes of Doctor Who, which I felt were more thought-provoking than most. So when I began reading the advance-publicity for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I was intrigued.
What I love about it is that as I began to read it it didn't seem as if I was reading fantasy. It felt more of a coming-of-age novel that drew me in and held my interest as, little-by-little, the story developed into full-blown fantasy. By then, any prejudice I had against the genre had gone. I also like the way it can be read as the story of a bookish child with conventional parents and no friends who finds empathy with Lettie Hemstock strange girl four years his senior. But she is no ordinary eleven-year-old girl and her mother and grandmother no ordinary women. There might not even be three of them.
To me, good fantasy expands the mind so that you find elements of philosophy, psychology and the way the human mind works. I note that one reviewer here says that the imagery is not religious. I agree, it is not overtly Christian or preachy like C S Lewis and relies on a more universal myth as expressed by Robert Graves. The human mind latches onto the number three, whether it be the way a story is composed (Beginning, middle and end) or even in the Christian Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). It's deep in our psyche. Any writer who can use this configuration will engage readers and Neil Gaiman understands this perfectly. His prose style is clear and un-sensational, alternately horrifying and re-assuring. It's the battle of Good v Evil and we can all relate to that whether we see that as forces beyond ourselves or the basic instincts within us.
Mr Gaiman - I am converted. I will read more of you. I may even follow you on Twitter!
on 17 October 2014
Neil Gaiman is such a remarkable author. One of my all time favorites. I have always marvelled at how well he can interweave fantasy and reality. You don’t seem to lose that familiar grounding of the world we know, even as you are delving into the mysteries of otherwordliness that creep up on you from the pages of his award winning novels.
Although this theme of reality spilling into the unknown (or vice versa) is one of Gaiman’s familiar formulas, there is something so very different and unexpected about this latest tale. We enter into the reveries of a middle-aged man who has returned to his hometown for a funeral. The childhood recollections, told in a very believeable first-person narrative, seem wholly commonplace and plausible. The exact sort of memories that Gaiman himself might have; and indeed he has revealed that he drew heavily upon personal experiences when writing this book. Somewhere along the way, however, the reader is almost imperceptibly drawn into a world of supernatural wonderment. There are dangers so completely evil that the seven year old protagonist should be hiding away beneath the blankets; yet children are always more accepting of the unexplainable, and so he finds himself caught in a thick web of mystical wickedness. By his side, however, is a girl as wholesome as the fresh milk she serves him from her farm; but also as brave as any mythic hero and as sagely as the dawn of time.
It is a journey that you will not forget easily. It is childhood lost and fairytales rekindled. It is one of a kind, and only Gaiman could have crafted such a complexly enchanting tale.
on 24 October 2015
The Ocean at the end of the Lane, is a straightforward book, that is easy to read but touches on deeper themes in a manner that an author like Neil Gaiman would attempt.
It captures the feel of growing up in the country really well, with common places made special and otherworldly simply by their location and a young imagination.
In some ways the story feels really rather sad, a melancholic vein running through, perhaps made more ‘real’ by the fact that the story is told retrospectively by the main protagonist.
A character that would appeal to many who grew up reading books, lost in adventures in their heads, he tells us that he found it hard to make friends as when younger. He seemed happy enough living with his mother, father and sister until a sequence of events brings him into contact with the Hempstock family, the youngest of them, a daughter Hettie, a few years older than himself.
They live in a farm at ‘the end of the lane’ with a pond in the middle of the yard, although Hettie calls it an ocean, a fanciful bit of imagination.
But as with stories of this type there is a lot more going on than initially meets the eye, and the new friends embark on an adventure to stop something dark seeping into the world. It is a threat that gradually escalates until only a sacrifice will appease.
The book draws on archetypes, most importantly in the form of the Hempstock family. There is a power in the form of three women, often shown as three witches although Gaiman makes them so much more in this instance. It is something that the late Terry Pratchett used and can be traced back through literature over the ages, indeed Gaiman himself made use of the trope in has Sandman series.
The Crone (rather unkind), the Mother and the Maiden – a role fulfilled by the Hempstock family. They seem somewhat archaic, but also seem to know a lot more about the world than anyone else. They are also filled with mystery and a gentle cunning. Hettie gives her age as eleven, but it is then established that the important question is how long has she been eleven?
For what is really quite a small book it is hidden with depth, from the characters themselves (especially the Hempstocks), touching on themes of loss, of greed, of suicide, of the feeling that there is more to the world than we could possibly believe, of courage and the willingness to sacrifice the most potent of things for friendship and more. Of horror that can lurk in the most innocuous of places and of the bravery it takes to find it.
It is also very unsettling, having one of the most disturbing scenes I have read in a long time as a father tries to drown his son.
Perhaps it is the mark of desperation falling upon a man finding his world being diminished by financial difficulties, but there is nothing more disturbing or terrifying than finding that one of the two people in the world that should be there for a child no matter what, is a bigger threat than anything else in the world.
It is a book that is both terrifying and wonderful, delivering a conclusion that is fitting and yet downbeat. A genuine telling and a charming read.
on 3 January 2015
My second journey into the magically enchanting world created by Neil Gaiman, my first was Neverwhere and I have been itching to delve back in ever since.
This time the story follows the recollections of a middle aged man returning to his former home that he, his sister and parents occupied before it was demolished. Something that remains of that past is the small ramshackle cottage situated at the bottom of the lane where our protagonist made friends, at the age of 7, with an 11 year old girl called Lettie Hempstock. Delving into these memories our narrator recollects events unbelievable, haunting and truly magical.
Written from the perspective of a 7 year old boy, one who loves to read and doesn’t fully understand the actions of adults, Gaiman captures the innocence and naivety perfectly and this coupled with some of the experiences makes it hard for the reader not to feel a sense of nostalgia when reading this novel. Gaiman’s enchanting way with words and his whimsical style tell a story that turns the mundane fascinating and the magical all the more memorising and wonderful.
This is a story of one boys revelation that the world where everything is ordinary exists alongside one with an orange sky, filled with monsters and magic and otherworldly beings. The boy is pulled into this world after the suicide of an opal miner who was a lodger at his home. The suicide awakens a being that exhibits powers to manipulate adults through the use of money. It is during this time that the young boy meets Lettie Hempstock, her mother and Grandmother. He is told that the Grandmother witnessed the moon being made and Lettie is adamant that the pond next to her home is actually an ocean, and it becomes quite clear that this family is not what its seems but is friendly and comforting.
One menacing being is able to integrate itself into the family home and using its powers is able to turn his whole family against him and causes his father to do a terrifyingly violent act. The story is also a portrayal of the role of adults in a child’s life and how they are seen, and the sudden realisation that the adults themselves fear things and have their own insecurities and are not much different from their child-selves, beautifully put by Lettie;
“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
This is one tale that will stay with me for a while, enchanting and frightening, touching and nostalgic. A story of friendship, childhood experiences, memories, folklore and unimaginable things that live just outside of our own world, waiting for a way to escape and wreak havoc by unleashing the monsters within ourselves. A true work of genius by Gaiman and added to my favourite novel list.
The Hempstock farm is a special place -- a pond is an ocean, monstrous things lurk in the forests, and an old lady may have lived longer than the world.
Welcome to "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," an exquisite short novel that shows anew why Neil Gaiman is one of the best authors alive. Part fantasy, part horror and part coming-of-age tale, this bewitching story is made even more beautiful because of Gaiman's clever use of magic, mystery and a villain who would seem silly in any other story.
As a child, the protagonist was shy, bookish and didn't really have any friends... until he met Lettie Hempstock. She was a strange girl living with her ancient grandmother and mother, who claims to have an ocean on her family farm -- and when she takes him exploring in the woods on her property, they encounter strange and sometimes dangerous creatures.
Unfortunately, one of those is a monstrous ancient being made of canvas and rotted wood, which follows him home. And once she takes the form of a human woman, she begins to torment the young boy and tear apart his family. His only hope may be Lettie and the Hempstock women -- but the solution for the monster may be even worse.
One of the best aspects of Neil Gaiman's storytelling is that he never shows you everything. There are glimpses of other worlds, ancient creatures, strange magic, but he never kills the magic by overexplaining. There is just enough magic, horror and timeless mystery to stoke your imagination, but not enough to bog down the story.
A lot of that comes from the Hempstocks, whose true natures and powers are never truly outlined -- all we know is that they are ancient and powerful, particularly the grandmother. And their farm -- including the mysterious "ocean" -- is a place of magic that both enthralls and terrifies. Gaiman's prose is exquisite ("The silk filled with candle flames moved then, a slow, graceful, under-the-water sort of a movement") and sharply descriptive.
He also has a rare gift for getting into the mind of a child -- the unnamed protagonist is young enough to still accept the strange and weird, but old enough to realize the enormity of what is happening. He also grows up as the story proceeds, learning to defy the cruelty of the adults around him (like his emotionally-abusive father) and gaining the courage to fight the canvas-creature.
And despite their weirdness, the Hempstocks are pretty fun characters too, especially the doughty grandmother who may be older than the universe. Lettie is a particularly intriguing character, both an ancient power and a sprightly little girl, as opposed to the rotten, malevolent Ursula.
"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" is a magical book in every way -- a coming-of-age tale about horror, enchantment and a farm that is not what it seems. The best book (so far) of 2013.
on 16 November 2013
These days, the refresh cycle of pop-culture is short. Very short compared to even ten years ago. Authors, bands, artists, journal articles and even the relatively new websites rise and fall with a speed hitherto unforeseen. This causes a number of difficulties for lovers of the above mentioned categories, although it is by no means an exhaustive list. For one, the possibilities one has to bestow his affections on a deserving artist are now almost infinite to the extent that it can be a full time job to find and treasure all the great material there is that it to your taste. Secondly, that special feeling that you can have with an artist’s work, that idea of being the only one who knows of it, which makes it intimate, private and especially joyous, lasts no longer for a couple of years, it lasts mere days.
Every time a new Neil Gaiman book comes to market, I am confronted with this dichotomy. I have loved Gaiman’s work a long time and, living in the Netherlands, it has seem for a while as if I and some of my closest friends, belonged to a special group. However, the author with an army of followers on Twitter to the extent that the term #neiltwitterfail is well known as a concept (Gaiman posts the link of a website, the amount of traffic generated by this event brings down the server) on the internet. Coinciding with the rise of Hipster Culture, it would be easy to say that I knew him before he was hip and pretend I would no longer be interested in his work. The mainstream has caught up and as a result, quality and uniqueness are no longer existent.
I would be lying. I am tempted to say that I am hardly a fanboy, however the moment my Amazon account tells me I can pre-order, I do so. Although I am becoming a bit more selective, this actually only means that I will pick up his children’s books in paperback instead of hardcover like I do with the work aimed at adults. Which is what I did with the Ocean at the End of the Lane.
“Aimed at adults” is probably one of the worst cases of mistaken nomenclature that I could have made. Gaiman, as a number of my favourite authors do, seems to forego the idea that things are unsuitable for kids or that people ever grow up. This is clear from works such as Anansi Boys, which would certainly be suitable for any 12 year old and cause him to laugh out loud on many a occassion, or The Graveyard Book which is a ‚children’s book’ that will give most adults goosebumps. OatEotL is however an even greater tour-de-force. Bridging genre’s is one thing. Bridging a generation, is quite another.
OatEotL is about a man that revisits his youth when he visits the town where he grew up. A fairytale that has all the telltale signs of a Neil Gaiman story unfolds. There is a villainess that is both morally ambiguous, but also acts as a mirror for the weaknesses in everyone. There is a distinct Gothic splendour. The mixing of old folklore with Gaiman’s own gift for creation. When I started reading the book, there was a moment where I thought that a lot of older material was being reworked.
It is difficult to point to the moment where this shifted for me and I became enraptured, especially without giving too much away of the plot. What I can say that this is one of the first books I’ve read that captures and describes so completely the sensations that probably everyone has during their youth when it comes to their family and how they interact with the world. The protagonist relives his youth and is his interactions with especially his father, the genuine fear of a child of being misunderstood and the chance of being punished because of it is visceral. As he fights against the villain of the story, he stands alone in his family. He is helped by three ladies that live down his lane, who quickly become his shelter against the loneliness his finds at home. Gaiman describes this solitude insidiously. Whilst reading the story, the reader is focused on the epic magic struggle that takes place. As a result he is caught unaware, with great effect, when the alienation, loneliness and helplessness strike home.
This in itself would have made it a good book, however the best features of the book are the small moments when the protagonist wakes from his memories of childhood and reflects on his own life. The realisation that as a child, you think grownups have all the answers. Maybe even more importantly, the hope that when you are their age, you will have all the knowledge you need in life as well. The moments in your life when you are confronted by the fact that you have no idea what you are really doing, or how you got where you are now in life, even though you are an adult are the some of the most difficult to deal with. Gaiman uses his protagonist’s youth and his constant realisation that things were different in reality than how he remembers them as a great metaphor for this process. We never really grow up even though we learn and gain experience, how we remember things on how we dealt with those moments when we are most vulnerable, is a coping mechanism.
When you read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman peels of the layers you have wrapped around your own memories and experiences to soften their harsh reality. Although at first glance a modern fairytale, it is actually a confrontation with yourself. Like every good fairytale should be. It left me hurt and emotional when I finished. I felt damaged. We all are. The fact that a book makes a reader realise that fact, is an amazing feat.
on 8 November 2013
Neil Gaiman is not just one of my favourite authors. I look up to him. I agree with almost every he says about life and about reading, about art, about writing. I haven't always enjoyed everything he's written, but I've always taken a sort of comforting pleasure knowing that he exists and he's still writing, still being a wonderful human being. And yet, I always approach his new works (as I do any other work by a beloved author) with a certain degree of caution. I suppose it's the fear of being disappointed, of having to admit that, even though you love the man, you didn't love the book. Or that you did like it, but weren't blown away by it like you wanted to. In Neil Gaiman's case, anything short of that, would be a slight disappointment I'm so glad to say that this wasn't the case.[ warning: slight spoilers ahead]
It started out quite slow for me. Well, slow for the first 3 or 4 pages. But remember, expectations! Then it got interesting and gripping, but still not completely AMAZING, and so it stayed until almost half way through it. I was prepared to give it 4 stars on my Librarything, which is the rating I give to books I enjoyed quite a lot, but had just a tiny bit of awesome missing. Then I kept reading and Lettie Hempstock saves our young narrator one more time, but this time it's a lot more impressive and I'm like OK this is definitely a 4.5 stars at least! And then all of a sudden the awesome button was switched on, and I was swept away by it. I'm not sure when it happened. It could have been when our little one is plunged into the ocean pond and is filled with the knowledge of the universe and of all things. Or when the Hempstocks work the snip and cut magic on the narrator's father. Or basically everything that happens until the epic finale. OLD MRS HEMPSTOCK, people. Oh my crackers, I didn't expect to love her that much. But she totally had a serious case of Kicking Butts, what with all the glowing and the silver hair and the commanding voice and the baddies going all scaredy cats in front of her and going uh-oh we're out of here. It reminded me of my favourite moment of an anime I used to watch when I was little, about this group of travellers who went around medieval Japan and encountering all sorts of shenanigans, and at first the baddies always went ha ha you can't stop us, you're only a bunch of misfits losers, but then at the end the old man in the group always took out his Shogun symbol, a talisman or something, the theme music played and all the baddies went "oh , man, it's the Shogun" and bowed in front of him. Except Old Mrs Hempstock is even better then the Shogun as the power is within her. We don't know exactly who she is or how she came to be. Just like we don't know how old or exactly who is Lettie or Ginnie. Old Mrs Hempstock claims to have been there when the moon was being made, and I tend to believe it's true. But I like that we're not told exactly who this wonderful family is. They could be called goddesses, a triad of powerful beings, that are essentially one single being represented in three forms, the maiden, the mother and the crone. But even to think of defining their identities feels like diminishing their power as characters. Their farm is as bit like Rivendell, the last homely house in the Lord of the Rings. Nothing bad can happen in it. Everything and everyone feels welcoming and safe and comforting. Food is always ready and is the most delicious food you can think of, there is always a full moon shining on your bedroom, and you don't need to worry about anything. Outside, they still exude power, but they're not invincible. At least, Lettie isn't, even though the seven-year-old narrator would have trusted her to bring him safely out of hell. Which she does essentially, but at what cost...
I loved the epilogue. I did wish we could have had another encounter with Lettie. I want to know if she's really OK. I wanted to see her. But it's probably more perfect this way. Melancholic like the beginning, but a little bit more hopeful. It felt like home, like knowing to be in safe, known territory. This is what I love and I can't get enough of it. It also felt a lot like reading another author I love and whom I should read more, Charles de Lint. He's also fond of powerful women with strange powers, or scary beings and wonderful otherworldly atmospheres.
Now that it's over, I wish this isn't the end for the Hempstock family. I need more of them. I want to read a whole series about them. And read their adventures on comic books and any other form. And why isn't there more fanart out there?
on 4 August 2013
On returning to his home village a man in his early forties starts to remember the things that happened to him when he was seven. A lodger appears at his home, and shortly after is found dead in his fathers car. He is there when the body id found and is sent to the nearest farm, where the Hempstocks give him breakfast. The death of the lodger opened a rift between this world and another, and dark things begin to happen to him. Lettie Hempstock, she says she is 11, but has been 11 a long time, aids him against these dark forces.
What Gaiman has done here is to take memories, the innocence of childhood, the fears of that age, and fairy tales, blended them together and distilled the essence into this exquisite tale. The Hempstocks are worldly and wise, and care deeply about all the things around them. The events that take place and the dark forces that swirl around this Sussex village are some of main fears that a child can confront, and yet the writing is compelling and deft.
You never get to know the name of the main character as I think Gaiman wants you to think that it is him, or possibly even you, experiencing these events. The way that the main character remembers means that reality, the dreams and nightmares, are all intertwined and you are not sure what is really happening, or is in his mind.
It is a melancholy tale, and the ending is quite powerful. Really enjoyed this and can highly recommend it.
on 17 August 2013
I have been writing reviews for such a long time now. I almost always try to write a review that is detailed, concise and balanced. As I sit here, I feel extremely lost; stuck for words on how I can best write a review of this very strange, but very brilliant book. This is the very first Neil Gaiman book I've read, but I've heard he is extremely popular and more often than not, his books go on to sell millions. In fact after looking the book up just now, this book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane debuted at the top spot on the New York Times Bestsellers list.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells the story of a man who leaves a funeral, back to the place where he grew up. There, he meets a woman he once knew, but can't quite remember how and why? Upon staring and reflecting upon the duck pond in the back garden, he starts to remember his life when he was seven. He starts to recall the events when he and his friend, Lettie Hempstock who lived on the farm at the end of the lane, banished a supernatural entity back whence it came.
Being brought into the world by the suicide of a lodger, the evil takes on the form of a new babysitter - Ursula Monkton, who begins to antagonise and scare our protagonist, yet also `give' everybody else exactly what they have always `wanted'. With the help of Lettie's mother and grandmother, the man's seven year old self and his friend take on the monster, as well as other scary horrors that present themselves.
I found it extremely hard to classify this book. Children's story? Adult? Fantasy? Contemporary? And I still find it hard now. For this is a book that can be read on so many levels. At its core, I think it is a complicated story about life, the unknown and sacrifice. It uses the unknown as a sort of fantasy, so I guess it will suit fantasy fans, as well as readers who dislike epic fantasy. And did I mention nostalgic? It seems to conjure up your own memories as you read.
And to sum up this book, you could very well say that it is clever, very clever indeed. For the innocence and naivety of a child is questioned, and tested too. It takes the surreal and intangible and tries to give it form. We can easily relate to the boy in the story, and we ask the same questions he does. But he has Lettie and her family, and although they may not answer his questions, they certainly know what they are doing. And I loved how wise they came across, for `the oldest can remember the Big Bang.' In fact all of the Hempstocks are brilliantly imagined, and it is Lettie who our protagonist looks up to, and turns to for help. It's a beautiful relationship, one built on safety and understanding.
Gaiman's writing is compelling and full of heart. I found the lengthy sentences Neil Gaimanand the simple nature of it to be very fitting of the seven year old lead. And when I say compelling, I truly mean compelling. yet it is quite hard to say why. I found myself picking up the book and reading further any spare moment I had, whether it be the time it took me walk down the stairs, boil the kettle, even take the bins out. And surely that explains my point exactly. Although, I did find the slight repetition a little frustrating.
One of the themes I loved in this book was how when we become adults, we lose that little bit of magic, that adventure, that understanding that only children seem to latch on to. As Gaiman effectively tell us - adults will follow the path exactly, whereas children will form their own path, look for the secret gap in the fence. And this is what this book is all about, discovering your childhood to seek your own identity.
The story did slow a bit in the middle, but I loved the references to the stories our seven year old lead took solace in, which links to our own connection with the story. I also felt the rather `adult' bits of the story were a little odd - the unnerving sex scene, although I understood the reasoning behind this, even though it may not of been made clear - for how can a seven year old really understand?
This book is magical, it has multiple messages throughout and will undoubtedly pull on your heartstrings, because I have to admit, as I read the last chapter and epilogue, I felt myself utterly at mercy to the story. It's a little story, but full of character. I loved the abstract approach at exploring the dark nature of things, and if you want to read a story that is original, different and utterly complex in such an understated way, then throw caution to the wind and have a stab at this. I promise you, you won't regret it. And you'll be rushing to give a second read through, to pick up on all of the charming nuances.