Memory Comes in Waves: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LanePublished: June 18th 2013
Publisher: William Morrow Books
Genre(s): Fantasy
Format: eBook
Length: 178 pages

Neil Gaiman’s most recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a study in contrasts. It’s his first book written “for adults” in many years, but the main character is a seven-year-old boy and the writing style is the same clean, spare style he used in The Graveyard Book and Coraline. It’s a novel, but it has the flavor of a short story or a novella, and Gaiman admits in the afterward that he originally thought it was a short story until it took on a life of its own. Then there’s the fact that despite the writing style and length, it took me a month to finish. That last part is my fault, of course, but I digress.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells the story of an unnamed narrator who returns to the town where he lived as a child for a funeral. To escape from the day, he decides to drive to where his former house used to stand, then he continues his journey on down the lane to the Hempstock farm, where a girl named Lettie Hempstock used to live. He speaks with the old woman still living there and asks if he can see the duck pond out back that Lettie used to call her “ocean”. He sits down to look at the pond and finds himself awash in memories of his childhood, back when he was just a boy and Lettie Hempstock still lived down the lane.

The narrator’s life collides with that of the Hempstocks one day when a boarder at his house commits suicide on the border between his house and their property. The narrator becomes friends with Lettie, a girl who seems strangely assured for her age and who also demonstrates powers and abilities that are at odds with her farm-girl appearance. The narrator becomes more and more entwined in the strange world of the Hempstocks as supernatural events begin to escalate and his world becomes far more dangerous.

I’ve long said that Gaiman’s Coraline is one of a handful of books I’ve read that genuinely freaked me out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t exactly the same kind of freaky, but it definitely feels like his darkest and most surreal novel. Gaiman is a skilled writer when it comes to ratcheting up tension and slowly pouring on more and more unreality, but he normally saves his weirdest stuff for his short stories. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first time he’s let those sensibilities loose on a larger canvas, and although it did take me a while to finish, he sticks the landing.

I was slightly bothered by what felt like the passive nature of the narrator, but it’s easy to forget that he’s only a seven-year-old child during the events he is remembering. He’s as brave as possible and he takes action when he thinks it matters most. Ultimately his heart is in the right place. I’m honestly not sure what slowed me down while I was reading this – in fact, I read an entire book by Lisa Lutz during a break in the middle – but I don’t necessarily hold that against it. Although I was occasionally unsure what I thought of the book, the payoff in the epilogue cemented its status in my mind.

I think if you enjoyed this book, you should definitely check out some of Gaiman’s short stories. They’re occasionally hit or miss, but they can also be shivery and intense and beautiful in all the right ways. I particularly recommend Bitter Grounds.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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Reincarnation on Repeat: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifePublished: April 2nd, 2013
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Genre(s): Fiction, Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 15 hours, 34 minutes

Life After Life opens with its main character, Ursula Todd, dying as an infant… and then being born again. This time, the doctor arrives in time and Ursula lives, only to die a few years later when she drowns at sea. She is born again and saved from drowning by a man painting a seascape who gets to her in time. Ursula lives her life over and over, never entirely aware of the process. She just gets a strange foreboding feeling that something terrible is about to happen. It isn’t until the end of the first World War, when the family’s housekeeper comes home with a bout of Spanish Flu after a night of celebration, that Ursula begins actively trying to change her fate. Up until this point I was enjoying the novel, but after this series of harrowing deaths I was thoroughly hooked.

Atkinson handles Ursula’s multiple lives with a deft hand, always presenting a slightly different perspective when she returns to familiar ground. For long stretches of time the book is an entirely realistic portrayal of life in England during World War I and II, and the only hints of fantasy come into play when Ursula slowly begins remembering more of her previous lives. Her parents eventually take her to a psychiatrist to discuss her constant feelings of “deja vu”, but that doesn’t stop Ursula from feeling certain she’s experienced things before.

However, Atkinson largely avoids turning Ursula’s life into a tale of her trying to change the future with foreknowledge. For the most part, she lives her life and turns left where she once turned right out of an unconscious desire to avoid horrible death or dreary misery. At one point in the book Ursula finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage so fraught with tension that I began hoping she would die soon so that she could take another crack at life. In another life, Ursula becomes intertwined with the German Third Reich at very high levels and Atkinson provides a surprising and sympathetic portrayal of Eva Braun that only makes those scenes more tense and disturbing as the war descends into chaos.

Ursula takes lovers or gets married, she has a child or she doesn’t, she lives her life and dies and lives again. With each successive life Ursula has a chance to make things right this time, and although that is sometimes true, it is also occasionally true that getting what she wants makes things far worse than they’d ever been before. Atkinson never explains what causes Ursula to live over and over, and the ending is open to interpretation. However, over the course of the story, we’ve experienced a myriad number of alternate Ursula Todds, each with slight variations on the same hopes and dreams, and the result is a deep, layered portrayal of life during wartime, as well as a striking character study of one woman growing up and coming into her own.

I’ve enjoyed previous Atkinson books, but Life After Life might very well be her masterpiece. When I describe it to my friends, I refer to it as “Downton Abbey with infinite reincarnation”, and if that sounds appealing to you, you should definitely pick it up. I also highly recommend the audiobook version, which has a pitch-perfect narrator with a supremely British name – Fenella Woolgar.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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