That’s right, boys and girls! Not only does Aether play video games, not only does Aether watch movies, but Aether reads the occasional book as well! As part of my efforts to absolutely avoid any sort of thematic consistency in my blog, I’m going to review one of them! Because you can’t be truly popular until you’ve successfully alienated everyone who’s followed you since the beginning, right?
Self-targeted snark aside, Neil Gaiman has long been one of my favorite authors/writers. Not because I always enjoy his works; I don’t exactly have the best track record of OMG LUVING everything he puts out. No, it’s because I really admire his writing style. Gaiman has a way of making his stories so simple and accessible while still maintaining a surprising amount of depth, and I always find it interesting to analyze how he works his way through the plot, even when I don’t like the work itself. Gaiman is one of the few authors I’ve deliberately stolen elements from to try in my own writing styles, as opposed to… you know… just unconsciously stealing from. So I imagine it’d be no surprise that I’ve picked up his newest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
This is a book that’s really hard to classify. It’s definitely an adult title, but it reads like a children’s book. The protagonist is seven years old and the narrative uses simplified language to match that, and the book itself is a really quick read, much like a young adult title. However, the story deals with very mature concepts, such as child abuse, suicide, and imprisonment, and is definitely too dark for most well-adjusted children. On it’s surface, the book is a fairly standard contemporary fantasy, yet it adds a lot of supernatural horror elements to the story as it goes on. Of course, it’s not like the classification really matters, so long as you know what you’re getting yourself into. This is a story that blends together several genres and sections, and finds a way to make them work so well that you won’t even notice the seams until you try to blog about them later.
The story feels almost folklorish in it’s execution. Spellcheck says that folklorish isn’t a word, but I don’t care. It mixes the mythological with the mundane fairly evenly, and its magic would not feel out of place in those night-time stories your grandmother used to tell you. The viewpoint character is the seven year old nameless protagonist, who lives in the English countryside in the mid-1900s. When his family’s tenant dies, the protagonist (you know what? Let’s just call him Steve.) finds himself briefly in the care of the Hempstock family, three generations of women who live down the lane and seem to know just a little too much about what’s going on. As it turns out, the tenant’s death, suicide over money troubles, has brought an unseen entity closer to the material world who seeks to sale that community’s money problems in the worst ways possible. We’re talking choking people with money, assaulting children with coins, that sort of thing. After some misadventures in the Other World with Lettie, the youngest member of the Hempstock family who seems to take a liking to Steve, that supernatural entity focuses its attention on Steve personally and starts ripping his life apart. Steve flees to the Hempstocks for help, and it’s up to them to remove that entity from this world.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels a lot like Gaiman’s earlier work, American Gods, and has a lot of similar elements. Both have first-person protagonists who are essentially pawns in supernatural conflicts much greater than them, both have magical elements that are internally consistent without ever being properly explained, and both have plots that expect you to keep up on your own volition without really helping you along the way. Thing is, I didn’t much like American Gods, where I actually enjoyed this book. I think it’s an issue of scope. American Gods was a grand conflict spanning across the nation with a wide variety of characters involved and working against each other, whereas Ocean is a story set in one small community with just a handful of major characters, and it works a lot better. Both books don’t hold your hand to help you understand the forces being presented to you, but in American Gods every unexplained thing just compounds on one another, whereas in this book there’s not as much to be worried about so it’s much easier to keep up. It feels natural for Steve in Ocean to be naive and uninformed about the world around him, because a) he’s only seven and b) this was a relatively small event, taking place over a short amount of time and only involving a few people, so he didn’t really have time to get acclimated to it.
This was a fun read. The book doesn’t overstay its welcome, is deep enough to provoke a bit of thought, and develops a fairly interesting world. Those going into it expecting a large fantasy epic or big grand conflicts aren’t going to find what they’re looking for, but for the rest of us, this tale of a young child being terrorized by otherworldy forces and finding help from a friendly magic family should definitely entertain.