A word (or 600) on ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ by Neil Gaiman

OceanLaneI was worried about Neil Gaiman for a while there. Worried that he’d become more famous for being “Neil Gaiman” than for being a writer. Worried that he was content with that. Worried that he was going to spend the next several years touring with his wife, Amanda Palmer (not that I would blame him, of course) and making incredible commencement speeches and talking about the wonders of storytelling without actually telling us any more stories.

I should have known better.

Storytelling is not a job for Gaiman, an occupation that he can drop by the wayside when something else catches his fancy. It’s in his blood. It’s as much a part of him as being British and loving his children is. Storytelling is woven into every fiber of his being, and if I ever begin to doubt that again I’ll pick up The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

To me, this book is an appreciation of the role that stories play in our lives. Yes, it’s also about childhood, and how we remember (or mis-remember) those times and events that made us the people we grew up to be. Who can say for certain that the stories we tell about our childhood are the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Who can say for sure they aren’t glossed-over, jazzed-up versions of events, replayed and retold in the way we wished they happened rather than the way they did happen?

The unnamed narrator of Gaiman’s book is a man visiting his home for the first time in years. As he dodges the hugs and handshakes that inevitably follow any funeral, he finds himself at an old farmhouse that played a huge role in his childhood – a role that he’s only just now remembering. He sits by a pond and tells us a story – a story of magic and terror and wonder and bewilderment.

That it’s told from the perspective of a seven-year-old boy is one thing; that it’s told from the perspective of a seven-year-old lover of books is quite another. This is a young boy who lives and breathes story, as he tells us often:

Books were safer than other people anyway.

I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.

I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I was whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.

Lines like that are why The Ocean at the End of the Lane connected with me more than any other Neil Gaiman novel has before. I was that kid. I bet some of you were, too. We were the kids bringing piles of books home from the library, asking for books for Christmas and birthdays, spending our allowance on books. For whatever reason, whether it was to escape from bad things or simply to escape into good things, whether it was out of necessity or pure joy, we were the ones absorbing stories, revelling in stories, and sharing stories whenever we could with whoever would listen.

Some of us grew up to be writers. Some grew up and continued to be avid readers. Some lost their love of story somewhere along the way, and for them I am sad. I’m glad I didn’t. And I’m glad Neil Gaiman didn’t.

I set out to write a review, but this isn’t one. There are enough reviews of this book out there at this point, anyway. Call it an appreciation, I guess. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about a lot of things other than storytelling, but the storytelling part is what spoke to me the loudest. And the book just wouldn’t go away, wouldn’t move over to make room for the next book, until I shared that. So now I have.

Thanks, Neil. Sorry I doubted you. Just keep doing your thing.

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