Fiction Reviews

The Ocean At The End of the Lane

(2013) Neil Gaiman , Headline, 7.99, pbk, 235pp, 978-ISBN 978-1-472-20034-1


What a difference a year makes. As I write this the Edinburgh Book Festival is taking place, and last year at this time Neil Gaiman seemed to own the festival, appearing in several events, and was - I think - a guest selector of the festival programme, choosing which writer would appear at certain events, or indeed what those events were about. One of the events he appeared at was to promote the newly published The Ocean at the End of the Lane which was soon to be a Book at Bedtime on Radio 4, read by Michael Sheen. This year? Well, he is not at the festival, but he did appear in Edinburgh at the Usher Hall reading from his latest book The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, inspired by a legend from the Isle of Skye where he sometimes lives, an event he has repeated in Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House, among other places. Between then and now, The Ocean at the End of the Lane was named 2013's Book of the Year, beating off competition from the likes of Kate Atkinson and David Walliams, which makes me think of The Observer and Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode and his rants against Transformer films (and any film directed by Michael Bay) as well as the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and while Kermode makes often impassioned, valid points, these films are virtually critic-proof, going on to become massive box- office successes and spawning further entries in the series. Similarly, the readers have spoken, and according to them Gaiman wrote the book of the year last year, regardless of what the reviewers or critics say to the contrary, but is it any good?

Well, or course, it is, but it is a very different book from Gaiman's previous offerings for adults (and in some quarters The Ocean at the End of the Lane is touted as also being a book for young adults). Certainly, it has been a long time since Gaiman has written a book for adults. American Gods was published back in 2002 and since then there have been the author's preferred text version and a tenth anniversary edition featuring a sequel story, that is probably set in Skye. His last adult novel was the 2005, Anansi Boys, and since then there have been several children's books, of various lengths aimed at different age-groups, including the sublime, Hugo-winning The Graveyard Book and a whole range of other 'projects' in the world of films and comics to keep Gaiman very busy. Those expecting the epic sweep of American Gods and the slightly less-epic sweep, but good humour of Anansi Boys are going to be disappointed, this is a far shorter, and less wide-ranging novel than either of those two, yet, for all that it is probably Gaiman's most personal book.

A man returns home for a funeral, he goes for a drive in the country and starts to remember things from his past, and a little girl he knew called Lettie Hempstock and a pond behind her house that she said was really an ocean. He finds the house again and after meeting one of Lettie's family he suddenly starts to remember everything that happened when he was a seven year boy from the day the Opal Miner lodged at his house and 'borrowed' his father's car to commit suicide in the back seat by gassing himself with exhaust fumes because of his gambling debts (and in real life, a thief stole Gaiman's father's car and committed suicide in it). Accompanying his father to fetch the car, the boy encounters the strange Hempstock family who may be older than time, or so they claim, even old enough to witness the Big Bang, which has to be a load of rubbish, doesn't it? However, the suicide allows something to come into our world that wants to make things better for people, and the easiest way is by giving them money, and our narrator almost chokes on a coin that appears in his throat and turns to Lettie for help. Together, they almost banish the creature, but the boy makes the fatal error or letting go of Lettie's hand at a crucial moment and a worm lodges in his foot, which he manages to pull out, but not all of it. The next day, a woman called Ursula Monkton arrives at the house and the boy's life changes for the worse.

What follows is a mixture of horror (one particular scene in the bathroom is appalling vivid, despite the relative 'protection' of the narrator remembering their past which takes the edge off some of the jeopardy of the events), wonderful fantasy invention and set-pieces, love, sacrifice, sadness, and narrative revelations - no spoilers here, but there are some major revelations that make you events and people ion a different light. Gaiman expertly captures what boyhood and childhood are like, and the seven-year olds place in the grand scheme of things their vulnerability, their powerlessness, their awkwardness and loneliness, their place within the family and school and their ability to see things that adults cannot see, or have lost the ability to see, or perhaps just prefer not to notice. Recommended, of course.

Ian Hunter


Editor's note: Following the 2014 Hugo Award's presentation the voting statistics were released. These showed that the The Ocean at the End of the Lane had been short-listed for a Hugo but that Neil Gaiman had declined to accept nomination and so it was not on the short-list ballot. Speculating slightly, it is likely that this was due to an incident back in the spring when one member of the Worldcon committee disagreed with the initial proposal to have Jonathan Ross (the former four poofs and a piano support act) host the Hugo Awards ceremony; Neil had assisted with this proposal passing on the request to Jonathon. However the committee member disagreed publicly and demonstrably, so provoking a Twitter storm that trended resulting in coverage in the national newspapers. A Hugo nominee also joined in on the storm. The latter subsequently apologised for unfounded critical comments on Ross and seperately the committee member took down from the net the initial complaint (but made no comment). But the damage was done: so fierce had been the Twitter storm that Jonathan Ross stepped down from Hugo-hosting duties. Neil was not impressed and so it is not surprising that he declined to accept Hugo Award nomination. However, from the nominating statistics, The Ocean at the End of the Lane got the second most votes. So having firmly made the short-list it is likely to have done well on the final ballot, but who can say whether or not it would have won.

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