A dull childhood reminiscence turns into a bizarre adventure, says the author.
‘Adult stories made no sense. And they were so slow to start’.
Hardly a few pages in, Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane feels like an adult story. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it means one would have to wait to get to the good part.
Gaiman can do reminiscence and faintly melancholic nostalgia like the best of them, but the creator of The Sandman is expected to take you on a ride rather wilder than a staid saunter down memory lane. Just when you switched on the grown-up mode; where eyelids droop, eyebrows rise, and glasses lower your horizon, it all begins. The not-adult inside squeals in pleasure and, a little later, in terror.
The Ocean... is a slim novel, less than 300 pages, which you get through easily thanks to Hachette’s reader-friendly paperback and Gaiman’s own narrative trajectory. Before you open the book, a word on the cover — the packaging could have been better. The overall design, as well as the blurb, is an uninteresting representation of what’s inside.
For a new inductee into Gaiman’s world, this book is arguably the best. The reader will find him/herself weighed down by the protagonist’s mood one moment and soon enough will have stumbled into a place at once familiar and inexplicably, eerily different.
A place with ‘atmosphere’, the sort best conjured by Stephen King. In fact, much of the style and good bit of the landscape in The Ocean... invoke King’s Rose Madder. Gaiman also shares King’s delightful talent for matter-of-factness when talking about outlandish things.
Using a child’s perspective, even a smart one’s, is tricky business. But Gaiman does this better than most contemporaries. Letting a child tell your story requires courage and, in no small measure, respect for the narrator.
Gaiman observes compulsion, adultery, avarice, desperation and much else besides, through the eyes of a seven-year-old. What do these things that adults do and feel look like, stripped of pretensions, and set in a context that challenges reality?
There are myriad references to Gaiman’s Sandman series. Those familiar with Gaiman’s previous work, however, might be left feeling less than completely sated.
The killer wit in Good Omens, co-authored with Pratchett, or the sharp terror in The Doll’s House, don’t quite have competition in The Ocean...
The imagination in this latest novel feels effortless, but not in the best sense of the term. But he compensates. By making the world in The Ocean... more believable, he draws the reader further into the bizarre.
There’s a chasm between wonder and imagination which few of us dare to leap over. When we revisit the past, for instance, back to our ‘old house’ we grew up in but never went back to. Try as we might to become children again, years of being grown-ups drag us back into the melancholy of the present.
Gaiman, on the other hand, breaches that chasm. In The Ocean..., he empathises with that chronic melancholy of adulthood and gifts us an alternative set of memories; ones we are allowed to keep secret. So that in the epilogue, we feel sorry for the protagonist who remembers none of it and immensely satisfied and even grateful, that we do remember.
During the course of one book, he makes us feel old, young, old and young again. And that — beyond the ravishing Ursula Monkton, the cleaners from the void and sweet Lettie — is Gaiman’s neatest trick.