I follow Neil Gaiman on Twitter, though I had read only one book of his (Coraline) that my best friend had gifted me on my last birthday. I am quite ashamed to say that my first acquaintance with his work was through an episode of Doctor Who - The Doctor's Wife, that he had scripted, and to this day , it remains one of my most favourite, poignant episodes of the show. All I knew from the veritable literature and almost frenetic online admiration, was that this was a writer with some fairly impactful body of work to follow. Last weekend, I was at the bookstore, and despite the bulky backlog of books and work on hand, I ended up buying The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Having finished it a couple of days back, I am the wiser to have given in to my impulse then.
Like Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane was difficult for me to categorise. This was fantasy, but the writing did not suggest it. Not even remotely. The story is narrated through the eyes of a seven-year old, mild-mannered boy. There are monsters and magic and saviours. And there are parents who have outgrown imagination and a strange sequence of events that are decidedly inexplicable. There are barely any complications in terms of rules of the land or complex human emotions, just like a young, sensitive schoolboy would see things. The awe arises out of the simplicity of the descriptions and the matter-of-fact statements, as if the boy (and the readers) were only just being made aware of something which should be treated as a universal truth. The plot in itself is simple enough, involving the dark side of magic attempting to take over in whichever way possible, and the good side making it a little more difficult to let that happen. Of course, the story runs thick with undercurrents, and I am still pondering through patches to figure out how it all adds up.
The thing I loved the best about The Ocean was the care that the author has taken towards the concept of childhood. It is not all roses and peaches, not even as a kid, and maybe the ignorance and relatively unscathed disposition of the mind allows us, as growing children, to accept things as they happen, without really reacting beyond the imminent feeling of fear, happiness or sadness. And then there are the grown-ups, all beaten, moulded, formed and blinded. Adults run by logic born out of experience, which even under the best of circumstances, is limited. I don't quite know how to describe the narrator's parents - they are so normal. And in comes Ursula Monkton. An adult after a fashion, but the narrator's discomfort is vaguely familiar. We have all had an Ursula Monkton in our lives - either as a person or an object or an incident. I don't know if I hate her; she just is, an existence that we are not comfortable with, a constant thorn in the foot and we don't know what to do with it.
Unfortunately, most of us lack the support of a Hempstock family. There is so much more I wish Gaiman would have written about them; I can sit back now and dream of a thousand histories behind the three women. They were, admittedly, the balancing force in the book, but their contribution was sadly limited to being the guardian angels, which is how the little boy saw them. The Hempstocks were the other side of the ambiguously evil in the world of the inexplicable and to me, they represent the force of mind that every survivor develops at times of grave danger. For the yet 'unformed' boy, the Hempstocks were his salvation and the reason for his being. For roughened adults, the Hempstocks are in our minds, offering impractical, yet wholly logical solutions to problems. The difference lies in the fact that as adults, we mostly choose to ignore them.
There is so much more that comes to my mind about the different parts of the book. There are ideas that grow and I dismiss. There are truths in the story I had always vaguely believed in, but never really admitted. It was, in short, the kind of a book that makes me think a lot, and so I loved it. Next time round, I am going to have to read it slowly, not guzzle it all down as I did now. This would mean foregoing my reading challenge a little, but what the hell !
Meanwhile, I'll be looking into these lines that I cam across in the book; mostly because it puts to doubts all that I had dreamed of becoming in life...
"Grown-ups do't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they just look like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world."