My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win."
The above gem of reflection by the protagonist in Neil Gaiman's new novel gets to the core of what I find most fascinating about The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Here is a novel about a child, told from a childlike viewpoint, but written for adults. As a former child and a current uncle, I take the above quote as something of an indictment. Though, I suspect it's not that adults always win, so much as children, lacking means to survive on their own, wisely relent. In any case, I thoroughly appreciated the engrossing depiction of child-adult tension explored over the course of the story.
This is my first reading of a Gaiman novel. I paid almost $60 to sit in the next to last row of orchestra seating in the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor (that price included a hardcover copy of the book). For that price I got to hear Neil read two good-sized portions of his writing and answer several cherry picked questions from the audience. He did so with a perplexing mix of gratitude and pomposity. In still portraits he looks like a proverbial geek. In person, he exudes confidence, poise, and coolness. He's celebrity and he knows it.
Yet, Gaiman is also the real deal when it comes to talent and craft. Fueled by a deep and genuine love of storytelling, Gaiman delivers highly readable prose and a well-constructed plot. Suspense builds steadily. The story unfolds via mystery and revelation that begs new questions. The prose is elegant, poetic at times, with a keen sense of pacing. Each clause within each sentence, variable in length, feels like the next uncertain step of a child going deeper into the woods. I read some of the chapters aloud for the pure enjoyment of it.
I wasn't completely taken in by The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in part because of its fantasy elements. Many twists and turns in the plot are utterly convenient, like so much made-up technology in sci-fi or newly-discovered ability/weakness in superhero tales. The novel also vacillates between profound passages of reflection and action sequences that sometimes felt matter-of-fact and rather procedural. The sublime confidence exhibited by a few good-guy characters has a charm, but also saps the narrative of some of its excitement.
Nevertheless, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a wonderful tale. It engaged me at the outset and kept me involved throughout. It had a bedtime story quality, but with the intellectual depth I expect from adult fiction. I especially enjoyed how things tied together at the end, combining the best fantasy elements with the bittersweet quality of real world outcomes. Also worthy of praise in the hardcover edition is Adam Johnson's jacket design, a hypnotic mix of tranquil color and foreboding images. Gaiman's latest is a very good read.
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