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There are times when being a grown-up is not all it's cracked up to be. When to be able to take a step out of time to go back in time would be a gift. To see where it all went wrong, or could have gone wrong. To remember.

That's part of what happens in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the first novel for adults that Neil Gaiman has written in several years. Whether classified as fantasy, fable, horror, or magic realism, the slim novel (which, really, is a novella at 178 pages) is a literary look back to a time the narrator doesn't seem to recall. And then he does.

The middle-aged man, an unnamed narrator, takes a drive after a funeral in the part of England where he grew up. Seemingly without meaning to, he ends up at the end of the lane. It's where the Hempstock farm is. Where Old Mrs. Hempstock, her daughter Ginnie and her granddaughter Lettie lived. The place where, as a seven-year-old boy, the narrator nearly lost his world.

He is a lonely child. The flashback that takes up most of the book begins with no one coming to his seventh birthday party. He doesn't feel all that bad about it because well, he's got something better. "Books were safer than other people anyway."

Fantastical things happen to the seven-year-old boy after he goes on a jaunt with Lettie, who seems to be about 11 years old. He tries to handle things himself but things soon get way out of hand. It takes the help of the Hempstocks to try to make the world right again after things come that should never have been let in. Sort of like when a child discovers things he believed in like Santa are not real, or things like his parents' marriage cannot last.

The boy's reactions, and the way the grown-up man looks back at how he felt as a boy, make this a far more serious work than an entertainment with fantastical elements. When things first begin to go wrong, the boy doesn't even think of going to his parents, who he loves, for help.

I do not know why I did not ask an adult about it. I do not remember asking adults about anything, except as a last resort. That was the year I dug out a wart from my knee with a penknife, discovering how deeply I could cut before it hurt, and what the roots of a wart looked like.
As with another passage later on, this statement works on both the surface level and as a comment on what the narrator will have to do when he tries to make things right. The later passage is a brilliant comment on what a once clear-eyed child sees as a grown-up:
If the shadows were still there I could no longer perceive them; or rather, the whole world had become shadows.
When the narrator grows up, he creates art of some kind (it's not detailed). When having to talk to strangers and he's asked about it, he says:
... (doing fine, thank you, I would say, never knowing how to talk about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it. I make art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all.).
That's what creating art is like. It's certainly what any type of creative writing is like. And when anyone tries to create art, it should not be pigeonholed the way art so often is these days. Look at the occasional sniping between lovers of certain kinds of fiction. But that's not how Gaiman looks at it. In an interview with NPR, he said:
That's part of the job, I think ... when I was growing up, some of my favorite writers, the people I respected the most, were the ones who did everything, you know. A good writer should be able to write comedic work that made you laugh, and scary stuff that made you scared, and fantasy or science fiction that imbued you with a sense of wonder, and mainstream journalism that gave you clear and concise information in a way that you wanted it. It always seemed to me that that was what a writer should do. You have all these amazing tools; it's up to you what kinds of tunes you play on them, and you want to play all the tunes. As I grew older, I was fascinated to realize that actually, society to some extent frowns on those of us who like messing about in an awful lot of different sandboxes. From my perspective, I just love being able to do everything. I think a good writer should be able to do everything.
Gaiman uses his tools in The Ocean at the End of the Lane to tell a story that started with the real-life memory of a man who died in a car at the end of the lane where he grew up. The story has much in common with his brilliant children's novel, Coraline, in which the world is not always steady, creatures from older places want to come in to play and adults cannot be relied upon. Searching for home, or to make something else go home, are at the heart of both stories. And, like Murakami, there are trustworthy cats in both books. This story is one that won't be up for the Newbery children's literature award, which Gaiman won with The Graveyard Book (this is definitely a book for adults with horrific ideas about a father's power and weaknesses). But Gaiman's love of story that trascends genre or age categorizations is evident throughout.

This story uses elements of literary fiction and of old, old folklore. As the seven-year-old narrator states: "I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were. ... Why didn't adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?"

Indeed. Why not?

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule




DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 11:30 AM Political Book Club Susan from 29
Mon 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29, michelewln
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
Thu (third each month - on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
Fri 6:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

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