Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Urban fantasy, horror, adult
My Rating: ★★★★★


For me, diving into a Neil Gaiman world is some form of sweet literary suicide: you clutch a chunk of his universe in your hands and feel yourself vanishing, for a time, from your side of the world. But if there is any death involved here, it is that of the reality scoffing at the belief that fantasy can’t teach you anything worth bringing back after your short period of escapism. In a Gaimanesque world, you always bring with you something that will change you after closing the book.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a good example of this. Gaiman has made gargantuan feats before like American Gods and the Sandman series (whose fandom, by the way, has been revivified months before the release of Sandman: Overture), and they both leave lasting impressions in their readers. Ocean is an entirely different kind of giant. In only 178 pages, it has an impact that can dwarf novels thrice its size; it has the power than can both slake and renew the thirst only a fiction-famished soul can experience.

The novel follows a nameless narrator who takes a solemn stroll down memory lane (semi-literally) and lets himself be assaulted by a strange portion of his childhood. Sitting by the pond in Hempstock farm, he recalls things that have changed his life in a way no other things ever could.

If I were to describe Ocean in a few words, I’d say it’s like a well-buried time capsule of the subconscious in book form. Have you ever noticed how there are certain fragments of the past that we remember more in feelings than in memories? They are the moments that don’t quite pass the threshold of clarity until we stumble upon something that brings us a rush of high emotions to magnify them. They are extra-special because they have contained themselves in a secret space in our souls to preserve the magic of their rareness. That’s how this poignant novel reads—or feels—like.

As always, I admire Gaiman’s ability to maneuver his writing voice box without ever removing the style that you can only associate with him. It doesn’t matter how old the character is, he’ll be able to worm inside their heads and breathe them to life convincingly. The magic just flows easily. Ocean is tagged as the newest adult book Gaiman has produced in a long time; it’s true in a sense. But you can’t possibly ignore how youthful its tone is when you’re finally reading it, even if the body is mostly just well-patched-up memories. The author is more than adept in playing the storyteller’s age seesaw. It’s an amorphous thing, his storytelling technique. In the end I’d say it’s a novel for adults, for children, and for adults whose scared children-selves are curled up somewhere in their cores, waiting to be noticed again.

The tale is populated by a colorful, female-driven ensemble: on one side Gaiman toys once more with the triple-goddess trope in the characters of the Hempstocks; on the other we have a Lovecraftian creature who assumes the form of a beautiful woman. The little narrator gets torn in the middle of the conflict of the two sides—which by the way I refuse to label “good” or “bad,” as their representations are thrown over with a blanket of shades of gray due to the differences of their motives (that is apparent too, even if the seven-year-old storyteller, like any other kid, has this blatant need to identify the black from the white).

Ocean does not follow a formulaic martyr story; instead we are presented with a reel of scenes that is just that—a reel that you couldn’t do anything but watch, no matter how you dread the next scenes. I love how the main character’s helplessness and a rather shocking sense of mortality permeates through the readers. Somehow, somewhere in the middle of the whole thing, the readers will realize they will stop being a listener and take the role of an unconscious sounding board of the narrator. Sympathy is easier established than empathy, and I laud this novel for aiming for and successfully achieving to build the latter.

The clash of the female forces is depicted in a perfect ballet of wonder, reasons, and sacrifices that I could not help but marvel at. They tell us that pigeonholing of power in genders can be annihilated; that we make choices and the world is not a jury of how we deal with the consequences; that no one passes or fails as a person. They tell us a portion of the things we already know but sometimes refuse to acknowledge.

This is a good read, the kind that lodges itself in your heart because it is more than deserving to be in that time capsule of memories you make when traversing the worlds of fiction. As far as I can tell, this is the closest thing Gaiman has ever written when it comes to autobiographical stuff. After devouring this, I felt as if I’ve been given a peek at something I did not know I wanted ‘til now, and I have to emphasize it has nothing to do with Gaiman being one of my favorite authors. I have confirmed that memories are fragile things too, and though they are as breakable as the next piece of glass, they can shatter whole skyscrapers of platinum if you will give them the power to.

Five out of five stars for the memorable ride.

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