Book review: The Ocean At The End of The Lane
Neil Gaiman has always been a great one for bridging that arduous road between young adult and adult fiction. If he was to adopt a trendy meme, it would probably be kidult fiction.
The Ocean At The End of the Lane, though meant for adults, could just as easily be devoured and loved by a mature high schooler, one with enough budding nous to understand that the best stories do not age.
One could easily imagine picking up this book to read at age 16, then down the other end of the chute at age 60, and finding something new and different to gain from it each time.
The first glimpse we get of the book's narrator is a little ho-hum. He's a middle-aged divorcee with grown children who seems out-of-sorts with the world.
We follow him on a meandering drive through the idyllic English countryside - and it's here where Gaiman's ability to take the ordinary and infuse it with shades of the terrifying really shines.
Nothing is as it first appears. Things like broken dolls, meadows, farmhouses and ponds become nightmarish tools in the hands of Gaiman, an author at the pinnacle of his game. Even the innocence of childhood, those beautiful, golden sunshine-infused years, becomes something shadowy and entirely sinister under the bite of his keyboard.
The unnamed narrator, and here we get a small glimpse into what was probably Gaiman's own childhood, remembers back to his past as a young boy who likes books and cats and not much else. He is a lonely boy, having few friends and an older sister who's much more conformist.
Like most of Gaiman's other protagonists, there is also a father figure who has the capacity to be quite nasty, though there is a reason for this which is revealed later in the story.
The Ocean At The End of the Lane is a dark fairytale, in the sense that there is all the classic fairytale characters who must endure the famous "hero's journey". The brave little boy who discovers something unusual - in this case, that there are (as Stephen King puts it), worlds other than our own.
In Gaiman's story, these are dimensions which house horrid creatures nicknamed "fleas". The boy meets a strange little girl who turns out to be much older than she appears. Together with her auntie and grandma, they are the only ones who can help the little boy when things in his life start coming apart at the seams. Not least of all because of a beautiful, mysterious and ultimately poisonous new nanny called Ursula.
If there is a lesson to be taken from the book, and this is where Gaiman blurs that distinction between children's and adult fiction, it's that perspective every child has at some point in their young lives - that adults are perfect, all-knowing, authoritative figures. Everyone knows that this is ultimately bollocks, of course.
Nobody ever grows up, not entirely, if at all. People are great at putting on masks and gathering the trappings of adulthood, the marriage and children and mortgage and divorce and heartbreak, but grown-ups are just children who have grown taller and put on weight. Inside, we are still that same kid, searching for truths that will make sense of our lives.