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

WHAT’S PLAYING: Erykah Badu “Bag Lady”

This week’s book is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

ocean at the end of the lane

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

This book came to me at an opportune time. I had just lost my mother and was suffering through yet another bout of pneumonia—the same disease that killed my mom. To tell you the truth, I was in a very bad place. Then one day, a package arrived in the mail. I opened it and found this:

sigened ocean

A couple of years ago, I met Neil’s American editor, Jennifer Brehl, at a convention and developed a serious girl-crush on her. Lucky for me, she’s as kind as she is brilliant, and didn’t call security on me. Instead, we struck up a friendship over our shared love of books. When she heard about my troubles, she sent me the book pictured above, along with a copy of his Make Good Art speech. Both books now reside on a very special bookcase that no one but me is allowed to touch.

I am not kidding. Touch it, and I’ll beat you with a bag of oranges.

Gaiman is a master of creating worlds that are just a bit…off. I’ve read this deceptively short and simple book at least eight times, and it never fails to move me. It sinks its hooks into my soul and I’m left helpless, caught between wonder and terror.

And every time, I come away not quite sure where the mundane ends and the fantastic begins. 

Favorite Line/Image: “I saw the world I had walked since my birth, and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”

Bottom Line: Damn you, Neil Gaiman. You made me cry.

Coming up next: NOS4ATU by Joe Hill

Book a Week Challenge # 2

WHAT’S PLAYING: Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby “Brother Bill”

This week’s book is “The Enchantress of Florence” by Salman Rushdie.

This is the tale of Niccolò Vespucci, a golden-haired wanderer, murderer, magician, and conman, who visits the royal court of Emperor Akbar, ruler of the Mughal Empire. There, Vespucci tells the story of Qara Köz, Enchantress of Florence, lost Mughal princess, and the most beautiful woman in the world.

This was a tough one.

According to the jacket copy, “The Enchantress of Florence” is “the story of a mysterious woman, a great beauty believed to possess the powers of enchantment and sorcery, attempting to command her own destiny in a man’s world.” Unfortunately, Qara Köz is anything but. She has no personality, no purpose, except to please men. In fact, she does little more than sell herself to the highest bidder, making sure that she is always on the winning side. She doesn’t even show up for a third of the book.

The first hundred pages describe Niccolò’s struggle to reach the emperor and Akbar the Great’s internal musing about the nature of man and kings, which sometimes fall into the realm of proselytizing. The book is dense with obvious and sometimes unsuccessful attempts to reconcile East and West, Renaissance Europe and Mughal India, and the overall story just didn’t feel cohesive.

But the writing! Sweet Mother, the writing! So sumptuous, so beautiful, it left me shaking my head in awe. If I could do anything half as well as this man uses words, then I would die a happy, fulfilled woman. It’s his mastery of the craft, past all explanation, that gives this book its glamour and power, its glory. I spent hours completely absorbed in the tale, but it wasn’t the story that captivated me. It was the writing. After I finished it, all I could say was “Holy Shit.”

Favorite Line: “He could dream in seven languages. … He had picked up languages the way most sailors picked up diseases; languages were his gonorrhea, his syphilis, his scurvy, his ague, his plague. As soon as he fell asleep half the world started babbling in his brain, telling wondrous travelers’ tales. In this half-discovered world every day brought news of fresh enchantments. The visionary, revelatory dream-poetry of the quotidian had not yet been crushed by blinkered, prosy fact. Himself a teller of tales, he had been driven out of his door by stories of wonder, and by one in particular, a story which could make his fortune or cost him his life.”

What I Learned: Master your craft. I spent hours lost in this fantastical world. Was the story great? Not really. But the writing was superb. And it was that writing, the way Rushdie put me inside the story, which kept me reading. I don’t know if anyone else could have done the same. I guess what I learned is that great books can come from great stories or great writing, and if you’re lucky, both.

Coming next week: “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden.