Neil Gaiman ISBN 10: 1472200314
One of the reasons that Neil Gaiman is a very interesting writer is the way in which he mixes the mundane and the preternatural. When dredging through the mundane for stories, we all tend to go back to our own lives to pick over. And for this reason I suspect, there are Neil Gaiman stories that look semi-autobiographical on the surface. A couple of the short stories in Smoke and Mirrors give off that illusion. I say illusion because I suspect that stories that seem to (maybe) be about someone who was maybe Neil Gaiman (maybe) in an earlier time of life are no more deeply autobiographical than any story is autobiographical. And all stories are a bit autobiographical. They cannot help but be anything else.
Then there are the Neil Gaiman stories that are homages. On reading it, Stardust struck me as a homage to Hope Mirrlees Lud in the Mist and maybe Lord Dunsany too. Anansi Boys strikes me as a tribute to Thorne Smith (despite it existing in the same world as American Gods). The Graveyard Book makes no bones about proclaiming its particular homage in the title, as does for example A Study in Emerald.
And then there are the Neil Gaiman stories that come from a more personal-seeming world of the imagination and dreams. These stories of secret otherworlds, doors between worlds, very ancient things and magic always have the feeling that they might to connect up in a tissue-like fabric somehow. Sandman, American Gods and Coraline could exist in the same world. For reasons of intellectual property, they do not, but they clearly could.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane takes a little from the first type of story – the illusion of autobiography – and perhaps a lot from the third type, the magical tale told in a world of shared wonder-stories. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane there is a young boy who is an avid reader and who might be mistaken for Neil himself when he was a young and avid reader. But there are also the strange otherworlds accessible by magic, populated by weird things and policed by abtuse but absolute universe-spanning rules. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Other Mother from Coraline had once upon a time met the nanny from The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
So where does this leave The Ocean at the End of the Lane in terms of reading? Well, it is a very difficult book to recommend or not recommend. It is essentially a very good Neil Gaiman story, perhaps even an excellent Neil Gaiman story, but, that said, it isn’t stretching much beyond being an excellent Neil Gaiman story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but I really like Neil’s stories and I’d happily reread his work. The problem I have recommending The Ocean at the End of the Lane unconditionally is that it did start to seem in places like maybe I was rereading a Neil Gaiman story – one that I’d forgotten somehow. It was very very familiar. Now, maybe that is no bad thing. Eventually we get to know our favourite authors so well that all of their work will seem familiar, homely even. I wouldn’t criticise a Lord Dunsany story for being rather a lot like other Dunsany stories. I wouldn’t criticise a G.K. Chesterton story for being rather a lot like other Chesterton stories.
I suppose if you are more interested in novelty and less interested in Neil Gaiman’s writing itself, his examination of character, idea, mood and magic, then The Ocean at the End of the Lane might not be for you (that is, assuming you have already read American Gods and Coraline). If you like Neil Gaiman stories for something more intrinsic to them, then I can recommend The Ocean at the End of the Lane because it is exactly what I imagine it was intended to be: an excellent Neil Gaiman story.
FIVE PAGE EXCERPT
The following is an except from The Ocean at the End of the Lane read by Christopher Johnstone for review purposes.