Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is a booThe Ocean at the End of the Lanek like no other I have read in that it taps into something wonderful, dark and primal and managed to transport me back to both the magic and terror of childhood, a time of possibilities and when dreams and nightmares really did come true.

Finding himself back at his childhood home after attending a funeral, a middle-aged man (who is never named) recalls events that happened during his childhood – how the peace and joy of his life on the farmstead was shattered when a visitor to his house commits suicide in the family car. This act releases a darkness that threatens the young boy and his family, a darkness that his mother, father and sister seem unable or unwilling to see let alone confront. Only the bravery and chthonic magic of the girl down the road, the amazing Lettie Hempstock, who has a pond that is an ocean in her backyard and all sorts of other wondrous things, and her mother and grandmother understand and have the wherewithal to aid the boy in what becomes a life and death struggle to defeat the all-consuming and seductive powers of the darkness

Like the man remembering his childhood, the reader is transported back to ours. As the boy battles his own and some very real demons, so too we revisit and vanquish (if we’re lucky!) those that haunted our youth. What I loved about this book (and Gaiman’s work overall) is that nothing is cliched or expected. Furthermore, it’s what’s not described, but in the spaces between the words, the absences on the page and into which the reader’s imagination slips (or tumbles), that so much happens. Gaiman respects the power of our imaginations to take the story into places other writers would not dare. Thus, we fill in the gaps and the powerful but ofttimes partial descriptions with our own menacing ones. This makes the book at once eerie, wild and disturbing. Sometimes, the words and scenes howled through my mind, making we shiver and look over my shoulder. Other times, I felt warmed by its magical embrace and found great comfort – as if a warm blanket had been flung over my shoulders and a cup of something warm, sweet and strong had been placed in my hands.

There is something restorative and meaningful in peeling back the layers, in being reminded of the power of stories, of imagination, of being anchored once more to a time that while a part of us all, rarely gets dusted off and re-examined, though our childhood is what shapes us. We tend to relegate it to the attic of our minds. Stories like Gaiman’s reinstate childhood and the terrifying and wondrous interpretations children use to negotiate reality in all its great and scary glory.

Finishing the book is like awakening from a dream and I couldn’t help but grieve as I felt that the funeral the man was attending wasn’t only for a lost beloved, but a lost self. That we outgrow (or choose to ignore) the capacity to see and relate to the world through the eyes of our childhood selves is surely something that deserves mourning.

Astonishing modern fable that vividly recaptures the beauty and dread of dreams and childhood imaginings.

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Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

What a remarkable, haunting and all together different book this is – not that I should be surprised about that considering the author. Not knowing what to expect and, frankly, not being enamoured with the title (though Gaiman’s work is another matter), I picked it up and was hooked from the first page.

American Gods tells the story of ex-con Shadow who, on his early release from prison, is coerced into taking a job as, fundamentally, an errand boy for the mysterious Wednesday, an old grifter who makes the impossible possible and who, it seems, has enemies in abundance. Claiming to be working towards averting a war, Wednesday takes Shadow across and into America – both as we know it and as a country all together different. Shadow, with little to lose and nothing to gain, obeys Wednesday – especially the tenet to not ask questions. Nonetheless, Shadow finds questions arising and answers lacking as he encounters the normal and paranormal; as his life takes one fantastical twist after another. Learning quickly that Wednesday is what he seems and more, Shadow understands that the war he is plunging headlong into has been building for millennia and, as hard as he and Wednesday and their peculiar allies might seek to avoid it, the clash between those he now realises are gods is inevitable.

This summary of the novel isn’t accurate – it cannot be without giving too many spoilers. It is unapologetically basic for this book is multi-layered, rich and complex and is based on the wonderful premise that we invent gods into existence – literally and metaphorically. They are intrinsic to the human condition – suffering many of those as well. They may not always resemble us physically, but they do carry the flaws and foibles of humanity, only in god-like proportions. Gaiman also introduces a world-wide pantheon of beings who, like the immigrants to the US bringing their gods to their new hearths and using them to help make the unfamiliar familiar, also recall their country of origin and those who once worshipped them, giving them shape, power and a future. But, as generations pass, and refugees, immigrants and their children assimilate into the new culture, so too do the old stories and memories which breath life into the gods – they change and alter and the gods as they once were both fade and transform. Struggling to latch onto the little they do have and those who remember them, the gods’ existence is tenuous, especially in a land where consumerism reigns supreme. But all is not lost, despite evidence to the contrary and Wednesday embarks on a final quest to reunite the old and vanquish the new…. or does he?

As Shadow undertakes his wild and uncanny journey, so do we, into a heartland at once immediate and ancient. Where those once worshipped struggle to have both identity and meaning in a world fast being overtaken by the new gods of technology and materialism.

American Gods is a tour de force. It resonates long after you finish the last page, the characters and the many tales (Gaiman also has these wonderful overtly unrelated to the major plot chapters that stand alone and with the novel, which just add depth and poignancy to the tale), lingering in your mind. As a protagonist, Shadow, as his name suggests is apt to loom when others shine most brightly, but he also hovers over the action, strong, silent and on guard. His slow awakening and understanding of his role and the meaning behind the war is powerful and heart-wrenching.

This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am so glad I read it and I understand why this book has attracted so much acclaim and made its way onto top 100 lists etc. 41/2 out of five stars.

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