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Ashana Lian's Fantasy Lab

Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Book: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

A reminder - my reviews are Not Spoiler-Free.

The next book was actually going to be The City by Stella Gemmell but I found it kinda hard to get into, so I read this one which is much shorter and will keep reading it. I should be done for next week's post. This book, for a fantasy book, is stunningly short. Its a bit smaller than your average literary fic paperback, a bit bigger than a children's book. About Prisoner Of Azkaban size, say. So... bitesize. Perfect. =]


The Ocean At The End Of The Lane review

Image: Amazon
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Headline
Published: June 2013
Fantasy Sub-Genre: This was quite difficult for me to place, as I wouldn't call it Magical Realism because the magical and paranormal elements were too prominent, too outstanding - yet, I wouldn't call it Urban Fantasy because it doesn't feel so much set in our comfortably fast-moving world. However it must be the latter because of the modern, recognisable world.

This is what he remembers,
as he sits by the ocean at the end of the lane:

A dead man on the back seat of the car,
and warm milk at the farmhouse;
An ancient little girl,
and an old woman who saw the moon being made;
A beautiful housekeeper with a monstrous smile;
And dark forces woken that were best left undisturbed.

They are memories hard to believe, waiting at the edge of things. The recollections of a man who thought he was lost but is now, perhaps, remembering a time when he was saved...

I would also like to share the Amazon description, as I found it much more compelling than the blurb:
It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond this world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed - within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it. 
His only defence is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is an ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.

What a refreshing book.

I hugely, hugely enjoyed this story. I managed to get through it in twenty-four hours with ease as it sucked me in from the first page, which the the first time I can say that for this challenge. I've also said quite a few times about a jarring writing style - finally! - not for this book. I didn't notice it at all, the prose fits together so nicely. It's interesting to note that a majority of it is from a child's point of view, and convincingly done. I found myself laughing aloud a good few times. I couldn't help but quote a lot in this analysis, as evidence of the quality of this book!

Let's begin. I was going to do a quick summary, but I spent ages trying to write it before I realised that actually, between the two blurbs above that I've given, there isn't actually anything else to say.

For the first time since this challenge started, I've got here a book with a beginning that is bold and hooked me in. The opening refers to the duckpond, alias Ocean, which we already know about from the blurb and so there's a great importance hovering over it. And of course, it's the book's title. Then we get an intriguing prologue, and the awful/amazing opening line of Chapter One that tugs at your heartstrings - 'Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.' I felt like this story has three beginnings - the section without a name, the Prologue, and then Chapter One, and with each 'beginning' you're getting a different voice. It was a good way to draw the reader in, I think. I also found it interesting that it starts and ends with the grown up narrator, but he sounds almost as innocent and as lost as his seven year-old self.

Our narrator is never named, which is something I never even noticed until more than halfway through. Extremely well done. Although, I remember his Dad said something about 'Handsome George', but I assumed that was just a saying. Speaking of names, I noticed that the 'flea' was always referred to 'Ursula Monkton', first and last name, every time. It holds her at a distance. I liked that.

The characters in the story were three-dimensional and each one very interesting, notably the South African Opal Miner, but above all, the Hempstock women. Lettie was such a great character, and I felt that she was this story's Constant. The narrator was very obviously seven, but Lettie very rarely seemed like an eleven year-old. The way she acted and the things she said made her seem much older, which of course was true, but even though I often forgot how young she actually was, I did always picture her as a girl in my head. The narrator making Lettie his object of hope when trapped by the 'flea', and her unwavering confidence, made her seem near omnipotent. The stakes were raised when the 'Varmints' came, a foe that even Lettie was afraid of, and we see that Old Mrs Hempstock possesses an even greater might.

I've got to be honest. The scene with Ursula Monkton and the boy's father having an affair really made me want to retch - (Out loud, the sound I made was halfway between 'urgh', 'eckh', and 'ewwww'. I was in my garden reading and it was a nice day. I wasn't as creeped out then as I was later, remembering it.) - for three reasons. First, Ursula Monkton was a worm-thing and a tree-thing and not human. Two, Ursula Monkton was not even from this world. Three, Ursula Monkton was pure fucking evil (excuse me),or at least from the standpoint of terrorising a child, even if her intentions were ultimately 'good'. His Dad was a jerk and I hadn't liked him to start with - he makes me think of the sort of people who have no idea how to be a parent. But even though it could be argued that he was helpless against Ursula Monkton, that just made it worse instead of better. It made him seem pathetic and weak-willed. I can't deny it was a great scene; you didn't want her to seduce the father (I was so. DISGUSTED.) but at the same time we DID want the narrator to escape during the distraction, and the contrasting wants made that whole bit extremely tense and emotive!

The Magic. I was SWEPT. AWAAAY. By the magic in this book. When I finished reading I was drunk on imagery and symbolism!

Let's start with the magic Lettie uses to send Ursula Monkton away when she's after the boy was a great, great, greeeat scene. I can picture that illuminated grass so vividly in my mind's eye. Another fantastic addition was the way in which the 'flea' smuggled herself into 'our world' inside the narrator, and how later they get the tunnel out. I loved it because it was so unexpected and quite gruesome. Nobody wants a worm inside of them, yuck. I was fascinated by the strips of cloth Ursula Monkton had hanging from the ceiling when Lettie and the narrator went to get her. I loved the Fairy Ring, and all the ways that the 'Varmints' tried to lure the narrator out of his safe place.

The 'Varmints' - or Hunger Birds, or Cleaners - were great because of the bad omen they carried in name alone, but to be honest the moment they actually showed up, they didn't seemed as fearsome as Ursula Monkton had. I loved though, that the true form of Ursula Monkton's words were in capitals and the Varmints' in italics, again holding them apart from our reality and us as the reader understanding that these creatures are much larger than a human being in more ways that one, not just for a child - any human being.

The magic in this book lies on the edge of logic, and wouldn't make any more sense told by an adult than it would by a child. I think by giving us just the magic and none of the rules, there is that sense of wonder that you get when magic is used and you have no idea about the conditions of the price. I did quite like that, because it made the Hempstock women seem like such mighty forces. Many questions are left unanswered about their origin.

Image: Water Stock III, by EvilHateYouAllStock

One of my FAVOURITE, FAVOURITE scenes was the Snip n' Stitch scene, where the moment of the boy's father kinda drowning him is cut out of existence. I loved it so much, I had to read it again. What I adored about it was how magic draws connections between seemingly unrelated things. Dressing gown, red thread, green toothbrush. I like how the cutting of the fabric was a literal cutting of the fabric of time. That was so interesting.

Quotes now, because I couldn't resist. The seven year-old's perspective was so entertaining, noticing things that adults probably wouldn't, like Ursula Monkton's skirt that he thinks is called a midi, and also adding his own opinion of things that were so idealistic for a child, unrealistic in the grown-up world. Like how 'Adults should not weep, I knew. They did not have mothers who would comfort them.' (p.164) One line that jumped out at me was; 'It's a dangerous thing to be a door.' (p.147) At first I thought it was metaphorical. I later discovered it was literal - the boy was being used as a 'Door' - but a person can be used as a door in a lot of ways, and most would be malicious or even dangerous. Even though the boy's perspective is mainly uninterrupted, at some point the man's reflection on that event breaks through, like wondering whether he would've been corrupted by Ursula Monkton's allure as a grown man and noting that 'when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative.' (p.157) Here's one of my favourites:

'Old Mrs Hempstock said, "Can you be brave?" I did not know. I did not think so. It seemed to me that all I had done so far that night was to run from things.' (p.135)

That just broke my heart. I wanted to give the narrator a big HUG! I thought it was great to add in this childlike self-doubt at all of these terrifying things surrounding him, despite the fact that he WAS brave, so brave to sneak out of the house in the first place and run all the way to Lettie's, in pajamas and barefoot. Aw. AW.

There one more thing I'd like to mention. In the fairy ring, the boy recites a song from Iolanthe, by Gilbert and Sullivan. It really grabbed my curiosity so I just had to look it up to find the whole thing. It's great. I recommend it for a rainy day!

The End. Just like every other book I've read for the Challenge so far, the ending was not what I expected. Which is good, I suppose! I had hoped Lottie would come back in that usual blockbuster film 'Ahhh she's not dead after aaaaall!' kind of way, but by the time I finished, I was more concerned with our narrator who, it seemed at the start, had returned to Lettie's Ocean for the first time since it happened. The twist that stunned me most was when Old Mrs Hemstock told the grown-up narrator just how many times he returned there for comfort, recalling all of those memories and forgetting them again when he left. That was quite powerful to me because although when he leaves he seems more whole than he was at the beginning of the story, there's a still a sense of great emptiness which I thought was really sad.

I honestly struggled to make sense of the closing lines, but perhaps I was trying to read something that wasn't there. Maybe.

My edition had a conversation with Neil Gaiman at the end, which was soo interesting and definitely a huge addition to the book. I burst out laughing at; 'My actual father never had an affair with a creature from beyond space and time masquerading as my nanny!'

The Verdict

4 Sha's

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane was so wonderfully told. It achieved creating an incredible sense of wonder by first having a child narrator, and second having a form of magic on the borderline of logical magic even in the realm of fantasy, although it seems like this book is being pushed as literary fiction. No matter. I already want to read it again.

Image: Wallpaperhi

Fantasy Food For Thought

Snack time! Yay, my favourite feature :3

My first thought is, using magic in fantasy to create divides in power. Think Gandalf. Every single story I have ever read including magic has made those with magic vastly more powerful or at a greater advantage at life in general, than those without. Which makes sense. Which in turn makes it incredibly interesting to explore what sort of fantastical world would make those with magic as a lesser human being than a 'normal' person? By this, I don't just mean in the view of the story's characters - in OUR view as well.

It could be argued that such person would just be called 'cursed'. This issue should be explored further...

Here's one more thought. Children narrators in fantasy. I've read first-person narration from a child before in Fantasy, but not often in books for adults, and even then they are often memoirs. What's out there?

It's worth noting that this is my fifth book for the Challenge - I just earned Mage Status!

Ashana Lian .

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