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This month for book group we read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I haven’t read anything by Gaiman previously and this is a divergence from my usual reading preferences. I found the story very easy to read due to the simple writing style and the fact that it’s extremely short. In fact after finishing the book I became irritated by the simplicity and felt that it’s actually designed for children and not adults to read. It is told as a reminiscence, of a 40-something year old un-named man, of a series of fantastical events that happened when he was 7. The language and sentence structure used by the man is the same as what I would expect from a boy and I found this was not challenging enough for me. In fact I have passed the book on to my 6 year old daughter to read now.
I enjoyed the Harry Potter series much more than this book. One aspect that disappointed me in particular was the lack of use of suspense. Even when the boy is at risk of being killed by mythical creatures, the writing style is overly matter-of-fact and I never feared for the safety of the boy. The aspect of the book that I most enjoyed was the exploration of the boy’s feelings, the description of his daily life in the 1960’s and his loneliness and vulnerability as a child but this was not enough to rescue the story for me.
“I liked myths, … they weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that … Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?”
As an aside, the boy is protected from evil, mythical creatures by an 11 year old girl that lives at the end of his lane, Lettie Hempstock. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that Lettie truly believes her pond is an ocean and that Lettie herself may be as old as the Earth and is the keeper of the Ocean of truth. I really like the characters of Lettie and her ‘mother’ and ‘grandmother’ (who witnessed the big bang and can control bacteria!). Interestingly in Gaiman’s earlier book The Graveyard Book he has a character who is a witch called, Liza Hempstock but when the boy in the Ocean novel mentions witches to Lettie Hempstock she emphatically tells him that there are no witches involved in their dramas. I’m unsure of the nature of the link between Liza and Lettie and the two books.
I suspect that I missed some deep symbolism in my reading of this book and I hope that someone will explain to me what the great merit is in this book. Perhaps I seem too harsh. I enjoyed the book for what it is but I can’t see much literary merit to it. Is it possible that the good reviews of this book are written by fans of Neil Gaiman who are not really considering the book as a stand-alone contribution?
I just read this good review of the book and I agree with Allison that the power of the book is in the presentation of the wonder of childhood and that we become crusty as adults as we deliberately try to crush our childish impulses.