Sep 022015

Ocean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane_US_CoverThe Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Synopsis: A seven-year-old boy’s life is turned upside down when an Eldritch Monstrosity moves into his house disguised as a nanny.

Book Review: Anyone familiar with the SF/F scene doesn’t need me to tell them this, but I’ll reiterate it – Neil Gaiman is a hell of a storyteller, and a damn fine wordsmith. This story is told as a retrospective by a middle-aged man in the current day, recalling a childhood incident in 70s Britain. It manages to be touching and insightful, combining the wisdom of an older man with the innocence of a young child in the same narrative. That sounds sappy when I write it out, but Gaiman makes it work with his charming style. The magic is fantastical and blurry, and all the characters feel like they’ve come straight out of your favorite fables – vibrantly colored and larger than life.

There are a number of great things about this book, but the biggest success is in portraying how helpless children are, how completely at the mercy of adults, and how terrifying that is. Your world is so small, and everything in it so much bigger than you, and you have no recourse if it turns against you.

The biggest flaw in the book is that the boy gets an over-powered ally, which ends all meaningful conflict once he makes it into her protective sphere about 2/3rds of the way through the book. After that he is (almost literally) under the protection of god. All the conflicts are resolved by the goddesses, mostly offstage, and always with very little the boy can do to have any effect. Don’t get me wrong – the climax is heart-pounding and incredible! The boy is running from the eldritch monstrosity, lost in the fields, being taunted by her, unsure of where he is and if he can get to safety and how he can save himself. But once the climax is over, the story just keeps going and going as the goddesses do other things. Those things are played off as part of the storyline, but they aren’t really… the story was resolved when the boy escaped from the monster/nanny. If the goddesses had only been less omnipotent, and the boy had something he could do to help them, this wouldn’t have been a problem. But alas.

Finally, the supposed sacrifice at the end felt weak. If a godlike being has existed from the beginning of creation, and will last until the heat-death of the universe, but is forced to step away from Earth for a century or two… that’s not really a big deal. I don’t consider that “giving up my life.” The goddess didn’t sacrifice herself to save the boy, she was temporarily inconvenienced. Sure, the boy won’t ever see her again, but… eh. It makes the action not very meaningful, IMHO.

I’m not sure if I would recommend this or not. It is great where it is great, but it’s disappointing where it isn’t. Maybe I wouldn’t be as harsh on it if it was written by someone less talented and famous that Gaiman? I dunno. Howabout we agree to stop at the point where the boy finally escapes from the nanny, and call it The End. In that case – Strongly Recommended.

Book Club Review: There’s a number of things to talk about here, such as the nature of sacrifice, and parent-child relationships. This book may get people to open up about their own childhoods (it did in our group just a touch), which I find to be a very strong point for it. Isn’t learning about each other why we’re all here? It’s pleasurable to read, and it is very short (even if you read it all the way to the end!). I’m not sure it would technically qualify as a novel, come to think of it. All these things combined to make it a high turn-out meeting for us, with some fine discussion. Recommended.

  One Response to “SF/F Review – The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

  1. ” but is forced to step away from Earth for a century or two…”
    This made me wonder if these godlike beings have smartphones. I hear people really can’t live without their phones :P

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