The Good Kind of Magic: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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ocean at the end of the lane gaiman

The new Neil Gaiman book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, comes out today, and all the nerds in the universe (including all the nerds at Church Street) are pretty excited.

I really like fantasy books, usually. But the popularity of blockbuster franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight has spawned lots of copycats, stories with plenty of magical references without enough real, well, magic. To me, a good fantasy book stays with you for a long time after you read it, shaping the way you see the world and making you wonder if your reality is actually just an illusion.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the good kind of fantasy. This won’t come as a surprise to Neil Gaiman fans. Saying he’s a literary rock star is so true that it’s become a cliché: He has a huge body of work and a legion of loyal fans. He has a tremendous Twitter following and books that have been turned into movies (Stardust, Coraline). He’s writing an HBO version of his novel American Gods, and he recently wrote an episode of Dr. Who. He’s British, has cool hair, and wears a lot of black. So, you know, rock star.

But all that doesn’t matter if the work isn’t good. I’ll admit, I follow Gaiman on Twitter, but I haven’t really read him* before this novel. But that’s about to change, because The Ocean at the End of the Lane has won me over. It’s haunting in a great way, a way that makes you think about reality, and perception, and memory, and truth.

Without giving too much of the story away, it follows a young boy whose small, predictable life starts to be shaken in ways that are all too realistic. As that happens, he also begins to experience magic. I saw Neil Gaiman speak about his work earlier this month at BEA, and he mentioned that the British press is calling this novel more a book about the way we process memory than a fantasy novel. He said that’s a “perfectly interesting, valid point of view — not the one I had when I wrote it.”

To me, that tension — whether this is a novel about real magic, or a story about how we create magical (or, some would say, religious) explanations to help us process difficult realities — is what makes the book so fascinating. Do children gravitate toward magical explanations because the real world is too harsh for them to accept? Or is it the opposite? Is reality actually fantastic and mystical, but, as we grow up, we superimpose reason onto the complicated world we can’t hope to understand? I think you can take either message from this book, and that’s what makes it more than just escapism. That’s what makes it art.

The fact that this book is so open to interpretation (Janie, Adam and I were talking about all morning at Church Street, and we still haven’t come up with a concise plot summary) is a testament to Gaiman’s expert handling of story and symbol. In so too many of the quick-and-dirty fantasy books that I’ve seen lately, the symbols are either way too obvious, making me feel like a kid sitting through a bad Sunday School lesson, or so oblique that they’re not really useful. Gaiman’s symbolism isn’t obvious or confusing. It’s layered, and beautiful. In a word, it’s magical.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about memory, and childhood, and magic. In some ways, it’s a transport to another world, and, in others, it’s like a therapy session, capturing childhood so well that it’s impossible not to remember your own. Gaiman fans will love the book, but I also think it’s a good choice for someone like me who’s new to his style. The book is short, the writing is tight, and it really does feel like a plunge into an ocean — mysterious, deep, and beautiful. And, ultimately, not totally explainable.

* I read Coraline a long time ago, but I read it too quickly to really absorb it, and I was in, like, a dentist’s office or something terrible, so my feelings about the book are all mixed in with the dread of root canals and weird suction machines. Which is kind of appropriate for Neil Gaiman’s work, I think, but didn’t leave me with a clear picture of the real narrative.

Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books.

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