Sunday, October 6, 2013

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman

Like many, I'm a Neil Gaiman fan, so it's almost a disappointment that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is such a slim book. The length doesn't diminish the novel in any way--it's the perfect length for the story it wants to tell--but I wanted the pleasure of reading for a longer period of time.

Ocean is a bit unusual because it's a book for adults with a child protagonist. What makes it really shine, though, is the relationship it posits between its adult readers and the seven-year-old narrator. For we don't read the book thinking, "Ah, yes, those silly fears of children!" Rather, we read the book and fully inhabit and understand the very real terror of being a child, a person without physical or social power to change his surroundings.

The unnamed narrator recounts his childhood and relationship with Lettie Hempstock, an usual girl at the end of the lane. Lettie tries to control a creature from another world, but a portion of the creature is left in the narrator, which brings evil into his home.

The book's main message seems to be that, to children, adults are every bit as scary and monstrous as actual monsters. After all, adults make and enforce the rules, regardless of the logic, desires, or needs of children. When the creature enters the narrator's home in the form of the wily babysitter Ursula Monkton, the narrator knows that his parents won't buy his protests that she's evil or out to harm him. The rules that say adults are smarter, that adults are civil, and that adults are rational will always prevail. As a reader, we're terrified for the protagonist as he attempts to escape because we understand this logic and his powerlessness.

Gaiman also blurs the line between the evil of Monkton and the "evil"--or at least wrong--of adults. Monkton has power over the narrator's father; he has an affair with her and he attempts to drown the narrator after he insults Monkton. But, it's never clear how much of the father's actions are a result of supernatural mind control and how much are the natural selfishness and anger of the father. The lack of clarity--and the implication that adults can be terrible without a villain forcing them--makes the story all the more chilling.

The magical Hempstock family is made perfectly normal within the novel, even though the novel exists in a solidly real world and even though the family is anything but typical. The protagonist's inherent trust in them--because they are calm and assured--also serves to reinforce the precarious nature of children, who are dependent upon the solidity of adults to shape their lives.

Ocean is certainly an adult book, with terror and subject matter inappropriate for children who share the protagonist's age. Yet it's a perfect book for adults, a modern horror fantasy with all the Gaiman details one would expect.

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