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Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I loved Neil Gaiman’s Coraline as a child (although the other mother’s button eyes particularly terrified me), and when I read his new Norse Mythology book earlier this year I was inspired to pick up a few more of his novels. I had high hopes for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and it definitely lived up to my expectations.


About the book: A man is attending a funeral near his childhood home, and decides afterward to detour down the lane where his family used to live. Without knowing quite why, he passes the place where his parents’ house once stood and continues down the lane. As he nears Hempstock Farm at the very end, he begins to remember things from his past, about the girl who lived there at the end of the lane, who called the fish pond behind the farm house her ocean. He believes Lettie has gone to Australia, but as he visits her family and sits beside Lettie’s ocean, he undergoes a sort of daydream about what really happened to Lettie, the frightening adventure they might have shared in childhood, a dream that may or may not be a memory.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an adult novel that primarily focuses on an event from the (nameless) narrator’s seventh year. It’s a book for grown-ups about what it was like to be a kid. For that reason, I spent most of the book comparing what I would have thought of the story if I had read it for the first time as a child, and what I actually thought of it having read it for the first time just now, in my adulthood. Much like Coraline, I think that this is a book younger readers can enjoy (cautiously, because it is somewhat horrifying), although adults will find different nuggets of truth within its pages. I’m mentioning this comparison because of the magical realism aspect of this novel– it does that great thing where the reader can decide for him-/herself how much of the magic is real, and how much is a child’s nightmare, an elaborate dream-gone-wrong, a fictional elaboration of hard truths that a seven year-old would not have understood or known how to engage with. As a child, I would have taken every single detail of the narrator’s dream/memory for truth, but as an adult, I enjoyed seeing the blurred line between what was true and what a child might imagine and accept as truth. Ursula Monkton may actually be a monster, or she may just be a mean woman having an affair with the boy’s father. Maybe Lettie, the boy’s one friend, really does abandon him to live in Australia, or maybe there’s a more fantastic explanation for her absence. It’s up to the reader.

“I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an afterimage, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk.”

I’d also like to talk about how unique this story is. Anyone can write about monsters, but Neil Gaiman is the only author who’s ever made me wonder if I should be afraid of a piece of cloth. “The fabric of reality” is a familiar phrase, and toward the end when things start falling apart there is a sort of philosophical use of reality as a fabric, but when Ursula Monkton first appears as something resembling  a weathered canvas tent, the reader is probably skeptical. I was skeptical. And yet, it works. Children can be afraid of anything, which allows the reader to suspend disbelief, and before long the reader is frightened right along with the narrator about what this cloth-woman can do. It’s not a technique I’ve ever seen tried before, and I found myself pleasantly surprised with the payoff.

And, of course, this is the sort of Neil Gaiman book that’s very quotable. From the first chapter to the last paragraph, Gaiman has littered this novel with little gems about looking back on one’s childhood. There were times I thought these observations might be a little too direct or cliched, but somehow they worked, coming from a man’s daydream of being a seven year-old. Here are a few more of my favorites:

“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

“Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.”

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have, like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Magical realism is often hit-or-miss for me, and the last Gaiman novel I read (Stardust) was too episodic for my taste, so I was wary going into this one. I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would, especially for this time of year. It’s creepy in an unexpected way. I will be reading more of Gaiman’s books after this success, but I’m not sure which one I’ll go for next. Any suggestions for me?

Further recommendations:

  1. Coraline, also by Gaiman, is a great little horror book that’s more young-reader friendly. The “other mother” in here was actually pretty scary for me as a child, but I loved it. If you’re looking for more like The Ocean at the End of the Lane to simultaneously remind you of your childhood and give you a scare, Coraline is a great pick. And if you know a young reader who likes spooky stories, it’s a good fit for him or her, too.
  2. If you’re looking for another magical tale of childhood that’s fun to read even as an adult, try C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Boy, the first novel in his Chronicles of Narnia. Gaiman mentions the Narnia books in TOatEotL, and I agree that those books would be a great fit for fans of this one. The main characters are children who travel unknowingly to a fantasy place, and accidentally set big things in motion with their explorations.

Coming up next: I’ll be reviewing Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty next, a science fiction thriller (after loving Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter I had to try this genre again). In early 1700s Russia, a pair of automata are “born,” and three centuries later their existence coincides with a researcher’s personal quest to solve the mystery of an “avenging angel.”


The Literary Elephant


Review: Stardust

After reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology earlier this year (and remembering how much I loved Coraline as a child), I decided I had to check out more of his books. I’ve had a few picked out, and decided to dive into Stardust this month, an adult fantasy stand-alone novel that’s short and sweet and full of adventure. It seemed like a good lead-in to The Hobbit, which I will be reading later this month.

stardustAbout the book: Dunstan Thorn sets a unique life on its adventurous course when he accepts his Heart’s Desire as rent payment from a strange and powerful man. Just shy of eighteen years later, Dunstan’s half-faerie son, Tristran, sets out past the village of Wall into the land of Faerie. He thinks he’s going to retrieve a fallen star that will win him the hand of the most beautiful girl in the village, but in Faerie nothing goes quite as planned. He meets several interesting characters along the way, some who want to help him and some that mean to thwart his plans. There’s also the matter of the fallen star possessing the form of a young lady, one who hates Tristran for his intent to trade her so he can be married. But the difficulty of Tristran’s own journey is the least of his problems– there are other creatures seeking the star, characters who will cut down anyone in their path. But even if Tristran succeeds, will the most beautiful girl in town consent to marry a shop-boy destined to be a sheep farmer in the little village of Wall?

” ‘I had thought,’ he confessed, ‘that a fallen star would probably look like a diamond or a rock. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lady.’ ‘So, having found a lady, could you not have come to her aid, or left her alone? Why drag her into your foolishness?’ ‘Love,’ he explained. She looked at him with eyes the blue of the sky. ‘I hope you choke on it,’ she said flatly.’ “

This is one of those episodic tales which, I think, require a lot more work from the author to keep the reader’s attention than traditional plot arcs. The reader must stay interested in many different “episodes” throughout the book, rather than one continuous arc, which means it’s all in the details, rather than the plot. This happens often with adventure stories, in my experience. In this case, there is the matter of the fallen star quest to tie Stardust all together, but Tristran’s search for the falling star is only one event among many. Gaiman juggles multiple characters, multiple plot lines, and many “episodes” in this one short volume.

For that reason, world-building forms the bulk of this short novel. There’s plenty going on, but it’s veiled in description of unusual place details and characters with uncommon mannerisms. The most interesting introduction for me was the addition to the story of seven brothers in the middle of killing one another in various deceitful ways, but all of the character introductions and new places are similarly packed with unusual background or sensory details to keep the reader engaged. The village of Wall and the world of Faerie seem almost tangible. Thus, the world-building is the strength of Gaiman’s Stardust.

The weakness, by contrast, is the romance. Tristran is willing to spend so much of his time and energy on this crazy quest for the girl he thinks he loves, but the reader sees from the beginning that his “love” for the beautiful Wall girl is a youthful infatuation no deeper than a preoccupation with the color of her eyes. In Faerie, he discovers that he wants something quite different for his life than manning a sheep farm with the beautiful village girl. But even when romance starts to play a role in the story for the second time, there are none of the casual little details to indicate affection; the love is necessary to the plot, and is described rather flatly, only going so far as to make its point. Books without romance can be great. Books with romance that isn’t the center of the story can also be done fantastically. But in a book like this, when romance plays such a key role in Tristran’s adventures, there need to be enough details for the love to feel as real as the world, and in that regard, Stardust fails.

But let’s talk about Tristran next.

“He was a gangling creature of potential, a barrel of dynamite waiting for someone or something to light his fuse; but no one did, so on weekends and in the evenings he helped his father on the farm, and during the day he worked for Mr. Brown, at Monday and Brown’s, as a clerk.”

Tristran is an elusive character, not especially wise or idiotic, not especially anything, really. He does take action of his own, but he is also shunted along in his journey by the actions of others. He takes things as they come, with little show of emotion. If not for his willingness to adventure, he would seem a particularly bland character. But he is willing to take chances and partake in quests and anything else required of him, and that makes him an excellent guide through a novel like this in which the reader never knows what to expect next. With such a fluid story line, the main character can’t be too rigid in his ways or the adventure won’t be possible. On his own, Tristran would be nothing more than a boring sheep farmer, but he is not on his own. He is part of Wall, and part of the Faerie realm. He is oath-bound to a fallen star. He’s capable and versatile, and ready to change the world.

Stardust feels a bit like a writer’s exercise, a foray into uncharted territory. It’s the sort of story I imagine would emerge from a writer’s hands when he/she sat down at the keyboard and decided to follow the letters wherever his/her fingers took the story, through worlds real and imagined. It could have been expanded four or five times into a thick fantasy novel if things hadn’t worked out so quickly and easily for Tristran on his quest. Personally, I would’ve followed those murderous brothers through several hundred more pages even if their story veered far beyond the point where it overlaps with Tristran’s. Instead, Stardust is a sample of fantasy– a snapshot, a tiny glimpse into the realm of the extraordinary. This one’s definitely an adult tale, so if you’re looking for an easy start into adult fantasy, Stardust would be a great way to get a feel for that genre without investing much time.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed the journey, but I was also glad to put it behind me at the end. I’ll still be reading more Neil Gaiman books, whether this year or next I don’t know, but I’m in awe of Gaiman’s range. The three books I’ve read under his name have been so vastly different that I have no idea what to expect from further books, but I’m definitely curious enough to find out.

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is an adult magical realism novel that feels similarly episodic, and follows a scientist boy and a magical girl from childhood to adulthood, through crises of varying magnitude.
  2. The Magician’s Boy, the first book in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, is a more apt choice for readers young and old who want another easy entrance to the fantasy genre. If you’re looking for fantasy that’s fun but not strictly adult, try Narnia; I started reading these books when I was seven, and am still enjoying them now that I’m in my twenties with an English degree. Narnia is a land where anything can happen, and all seven books are quick and engaging reads.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a classic murder mystery (from the legendary queen of murder mysteries). This one’s about a long train ride in which a passenger is killed… meaning anyone on the train could have done it, and anyone on the train could be the next victim.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Norse Mythology

I’ve been interested in mythology for years, so when I saw Neil Gaiman had a new release about Norse myths, I was too tempted to resist. My only experience with Gaiman’s writing before diving into Norse Mythology this month was Coraline, which I enjoyed so much as a child that my copy is one of the most worn-looking books on my shelf. If that and Norse Mythology are anything to judge by, I need more Neil Gaiman literature in my life.

FullSizeRender (8)About the book: In a series of sections that Gaiman lends chronology to, Norse Mythology presents a set of myths threaded together a few main characters. Odin (the father of the gods), along with Thor (the mightiest of the gods) and Loki (of giant descent) are the most prominent characters of the book. They face hardships and embark on adventures, as well as battling each other in disagreement. The world begins and ends, with all of life passing between–except the end may be no more than a new beginning. Gaiman provides an introduction, a glossary of names, and a brief sketch of each of the main characters in addition to the myths themselves; these extras act as the reader’s guide to unlocking the rules of the world (or the nine worlds, more accurately) and keeping up with the changes and constants inside it.

Myths are a distinct kind of story. They’re fantastical, and, in my opinion, the sort of story that most requires an open mind. Anything can happen, and the reader must suspend all disbelief to follow wherever the story shall lead. The characters are gods and monsters with no need to adhere to the rules of reality. Death need not be final, magic may appear or not, animals and inanimate objects are personified, and anything is possible. The stories are atmospheric and character-driven rather than plausible. Myths are stories that can break their own rules and still be accepted.

From Gaiman’s Introduction:

“Some details in the stories contradict each other. But I hope they paint a picture of a world and a time.”

This is what mythology is, essentially. It’s an essence, a way to explain the nature of the world and to entertain oneself. These stories came from a time when writing was much less common and the stories were passed by word of mouth–changing a bit each time, no doubt. There are so many different versions of myths, and none of them are more right or wrong than the other. This is something I find particularly compelling about fiction (and mythology in particular): it can be contradictory and unrealistic.

“Nothing will remain of the armies of the living and the dead, of the dreams of the gods and the bravery of their warriors, nothing but ash […] That is how the world will end, in ash and flood, in darkness and in ice. That is the final destiny of the gods.”

Personally, my favorite aspect of any myths is the sense of power–gods are limited beings, but much less so than humans. Thor might not be the brightest, and he may be fallible, but still everyone fears him. Odin may be deceitful and disfigured, but he is respected as the all-father–the man who made  the existence of both gods and humans possible. Freya may be the most beautiful woman, but she is strong-willed even among the gods and well-respected for it. Loki is only ever on his own side, and sometimes he loses, but he is incredibly resourceful and can get almost anything he wants out of anyone. While the characters aren’t always likable, their power and struggle makes them irresistibly compelling.

Each of the stories in this volume are short and sweet, just the right length to keep the reader thinking “just one more” and thus finding oneself at the end of the book in just one sitting. Although the myths are not a continuous story, they are ordered in Norse Mythology in the arc of a journey, the tension growing more with each cluster of pages from the beginning of the world to the end. In between is the search for Sif’s hair, the origin of poetry, a quest for a 3 mile deep mead cauldron, and much, much more. Gaiman has found a great order of narration here, but even that is fluid because there is no beginning and end to mythology. The first story in this book is titled, “Before the Beginning, and After.” I, for one, love the supposition that even before the beginning there was something. Even nothing is something. And even though there is little left of Norse mythology, the reader is left with the hope of more in this collection:

“That is the end. But there is also what will come after the end.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I want to read more mythology, because it fascinates me. I’m looking forward to checking out Homer again later this year when The Iliad comes up as my classic of the month (I think I’m also going to try reading The Odyssey around that time, as a bonus). I’m also looking forward to watching the movie Thor for the first time in the near future. I will definitely be reading more of Neil Gaiman’s works, though I believe this one was his only myth-related book. Any recommendations? (Seriously, I must read more Neil Gaiman.)

Further recommendations from me:

  1. For can’t-get-enough mythology fans, classic myths from ancient Rome or Greece may be of interest, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, or Homer’s The Iliad. I’m not personally familiar with old Norse sources, but I can vouch that these other epic tales are equally interesting.
  2. Books that reference mythology and ancient culture with frequency may be great next picks for readers who are already more knowledgeable about the stories and history of mythology. Books like Pierce Brown’s Red Rising or Donna Tart’s The Secret History are wonderful in their own right, but also draw on the stories and lives of the ancient greats.
  3. For something easy, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (or any other of his books; I believe there are also Norse myth based novels in his oeuvre, but I’ve only read his Percy Jackson series so far) is also a modern mishmash of mythology. This one mixes new adventures with established mythology, and is an engaging tale for readers of (almost) all ages.

What’s next: I’m still finishing Jane Eyre, my classic of the month from March (which I’m absolutely loving), but I’ve also got library books due soon, so in a couple of days I should also be done with Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything and have a review for you on that. It’s a YA contemporary novel about a girl who’s allergic to everything, and is content in her isolation until she falls in love with the boy next door and realizes just how badly she wants to be out in the world, even if it could kill her.


The Literary Elephant