ALISONSBOOKMARKS.COM Gaiman’s newest novel provides a new take on magical realism.
Gaiman’s newest novel provides a new take on magical realism.

I have to admit that I was dreading my 7 a.m. flight from Salt Lake City to Dulles. I woke up at 5, wrestled two humongous suitcases through the airport and started the brutal process of moving cross-country for my second year of Georgetown. My full intention was to read a little during take-off and then sleep for the rest of the four-hour flight. But my book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman, kept me wide awake and turning pages for four full hours.

My only previous experience with Neil Gaiman is his last notable novel, Coraline, which I read when I was 11 years old. Coraline was in every way designed to disturb children with a simple yet nightmarish set of characters and circumstances. I was expecting Ocean — which had been recommended to me on the premise that it was written for adults — to contain more mature, complex plot elements. Gaiman again delivered, however, a surprisingly simple plot.

A middle-aged man recalls a childhood adventure from when he was 7 years old. The story begins as the young protagonist meets his mysterious neighbor, Lettie Hempstock. We learn quickly that Lettie has a supernatural quality: She is equipped with the ability to bring our young narrator to a magical — yet spooky — world in her backyard. They go on an adventure, encountering spirits, monsters and villains, all of which the duo defeat in a satisfying story of friendship. For a book that is less than 200 pages, the plot is adequately endearing, but it is certainly not the main attraction of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Instead of complicated story elements, Gaiman kept my attention with his clever array of characters and the wildly imaginative creatures that he invents to move the basic plot along.

One of the crucial ways Gaiman complements the premise of his story is by employing a 7-year-old boy as narrator. In my experience with Coraline and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman’s gift is designing intensely fantastical worlds of demons and monsters. He embraces the intrinsically juvenile nature of what he best creates, and makes a good decision in setting the story through the point-of-view of a child. Gaiman’s use of a young narrator takes advantage of the fact that children have a natural aptitude for believing and intensifying imagination. The terrors of the young narrator are palpable, the wild colors of the villain Ursula Monkton seem twice as vivid and the admiration the narrator feels toward Lettie is far more meaningful. Thanks to the child narrator, Gaiman’s confabulations seem completely believable.

Mr. Gaiman’s choice of narrative character paves the way to a simple yet concise language style throughout the book. Ocean imitates a story told by a child: The word choice is simple, and the blunt, straightforward descriptions made by the narrator were amusing and fun to read. However, Gaiman did not dedicate enough time to the explanation of the fabricated elements of the world he created, which sometimes led to confusing moments where I had to turn back a few pages to figure out exactly what he was talking about.

It takes until the end of the novel to understand that Gaiman is writing for a mature audience. Like I said, the plot is elementary and the characters are juvenile, but when the narrator is finished with his reflection, his conversations with Lettie Hempstock’s grandmother add depth and meaning to the story. Gaiman provides us with an excellent reflection on how we can remember our own childhoods and in doing so, adds a component to the story that requires more maturity to understand.

Overall, the book was a delightful read, and I made quick work of it within the four hours of my flight. Its painlessly uncomplicated plot reminisces of the adventurous days of childhood, yet is not unbearably sentimental. I predict that The Ocean at the End of the Lane will be remembered as Gaiman’s best work.

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