Monday, August 5, 2013

Tedwords Tomes: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Really, there are too few books out there that make you feel.

I mean, evoke a real emotion. Most fiction simply moves you along on a tidal wave of action. Biographies and histories fill you up with page upon page of facts. Political invective intends to make you something, I suppose (it certainly doesn't intend to appeal to your head,) but that emotion is primarily hatred for the other guy, whoever that is. I don't consider that genuine feeling.

Then there are books like The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, which is a book that makes you feel the real deal. Those sorts are far and few between. The book was released in June, so it's actually quite remarkable I've read it, but after having done so, I'm placing it up there with some of my favorite children's classics, like A Wrinkle in Time or The Dark is Rising saga. The former, because of the obvious echo the newer book contains between its female protagonists and Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. The latter, because of the sense of childish comfort I derived from both, like a thick quilt your mother would throw over your bed as you were sleeping on a cold winter's night. 

The story involves a middle aged man who returns to his childhood home in Sussex, England to attend a funeral, and is drawn to a farm at the end of the road. When he was seven, he met a remarkable girl there named Lettie, along with her mother and grandmother. Of course, from there, the story becomes one long flashback. We are swept up, like a wave upon the sea, into his story, his discovered memory of past events. And while I have absolutely no idea what our narrator looks like, either in childhood and in middle age, and while some descriptions are a bit overused (yes, I am well aware that Lettie has lots of freckles. Thanks!) those quibbles are trifles, really. It's the bigger things in this story that make it so vivid and memorable. 

Neil Gaiman has a talent few other authors possess: he captures the feeling and emotions of being a child vividly. He's done that in other novels, but in this one there are clearly bits snipped from his own life that have been woven throughout, giving the novel a sense of authenticity that make the fantastical elements spring to life, like bacon on a skillet. That, and the delicious way he has of capturing the absurd make this one tasty meal, indeed.

Particularly vivid is the villainess of the piece, a nasty piece of work known as Ursula Monkton. This book is at its best when it is chronicling the little tortures she visits upon our narrator. The child who all at once finds his or her safe family surroundings becoming a place of horror and fear has always been a fascination of mine. Was it always that way? Had it been eroding for a while? That look at childish creature comfort being intruded upon by adult creature unpleasantries always makes for great fiction, and Ursula's methodical deconstruction of a once seemingly halcyon family environment into something approaching a perverse prison camp is particularly gripping. I flew through those pages. My kids became irritated as I made little worried noises. It's really good writing.

The best writing of all is the contrast between the clear sightedness of childhood set against the delusion that adulthood often represents. At the book's heart is the following marvelous quote:

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.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane made me remember what I look like on the inside, what I felt as a child. It returned me to a more innocent and creative time. It made me feel things I should be feeling every day of my life, like how truly breathtaking a full moon can be or how comforting a good slice of warm pie can feel after a particularly bad day. Or, how a really good book can have the power to take you to another place and time.

These are all good things to remember, even if, as the narrator does, the present somehow manages to make you forget them in the blink of an eye. That's why we need more books like this one. Read it. You'll see what I mean.  

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