Neil Gaiman has always been one of those authors floating around my peripheral vision for years yet never approached directly. (For no good reason, of course.) In true book club style, therefore, I have finally been forced to confront some truly marvellous, magical reading that has been just the ticket for my favourite autumnal frosty evenings.
In his latest novel (originally intended as a novella); The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we follow our unnamed, everyman, narrator desperately seeking solitude following a family funeral in his old childhood haunts. Collapsed on a bench by the side of a pond at an old friend’s home, our exhausted chap is instantly transported back to simpler days. When parents were infallible, friends indestructible and ponds at the bottom of the garden became entire oceans of knowledge.
After the suicide of his parents’ lodger opens up a tear in the universe where all manner of nasties and nightmares can creep out, our boy finds himself on a bewildering adventure with his enigmatic neighbour Lettie Hempstock, who is determined to sew up the gaping hole and defend her friend’s small world. In a tale that falls far closer to the horror of an original Grimm Fairy Tale than expected, our boy is infiltrated and inhabited by a shapeshifting worm that finally materialises in his home and life as the terrifying (yet thoroughly respectable looking) babysitter Ursula Monkton. Under the guise of ‘giving people what they want’, this netherworld monster shakes the narrator’s cosy world until we can stand it no longer, given only rare respite in the Hempstock’s farmstead kitchen, lushly gobbling up honeycomb and ice cream.
I adored this magical little book and devoured it in little over a day and, you know what book groupers (and everyone else), I don’t care if it doesn’t quite match up to his other work, because I haven’t read any of it! Following my terrifying foray into previously unseen sections of Waterstones to retrieve this book I discovered a fairytale with a literary heart, something I could really believe in. Did it matter that my imagination struggled to visualise some aspects of the story? (such as the huge monster supposedly made out of something resembling a massive, pinky-grey tent…) Not one bit. I believed in this little boy’s world and his fantastical adventure (or even perhaps – as one smart book-grouper pointed out – an imagined nightmare of the child’s own making in reaction to distressing events in ‘real life’). This is an oddly comforting novel, transporting us back to the magic of childhood and the sinister forces lying in wait for us that make the joys and simplicities of life all the more precious.
In short, the book group were left with very little to discuss, but we felt really, really good about it…. so which Gaiman should we read next?
The “Magic” Pond by Kris Haamer via Flickr