Sunday, 8 February 2015

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are two pieces of writing advice that are commonly given and that most writing instructors would find uncontroversial. First, using the verb "to be" in sentences of the pattern "the X was Y" produces weak, passive writing; far better to have the X doing something than being something. And second, you must name your viewpoint character early in the story, especially if they are also the narrator, in order for the audience to identify with them.

This book cheerfully shatters both of those rules and strides on without looking back. In fact, nobody in the narrator's family has a name. The three parts of the triple goddess have names, though they are presumably not their true names, and the antagonist has one, which is definitely not its true name. Even the narrator's original black kitten never gets a name, or a gender. Nevertheless, the kitten has great emotional weight and significance.

I don't know how Neil Gaiman does what he does; if I did, I would be doing it. But however he does it, it's not by following the rules.

If I can make a guess, it's that he takes the ordinary and the human, and he meshes it with the mythic, so perfectly that we can't see the seams, like the robe that the grandmother sews in this story. He has experienced his own inner life very intensely, and he has read very widely, and he sees each of those things in terms of the other, and then describes it so evocatively and with such a flawless ear for the music of language that we glimpse some of it too. Especially those of us who have intense inner lives, and have read widely, because we connect to his images - even the ones we only half-recognise.

As the narrator says, though, even he doesn't know how to talk about what he does. "If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it."

A beautiful, haunting story, from an author at the height of his considerable powers. For that reason, not to be attempted lightly. I definitely need to read something unchallenging afterwards, as a palate-cleanser.

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