Tag Archives: book reviews

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

ocean_at_the_end_of_the_lane_us_cover

I need to get this one out before it starts to fade. Normally I wait until my first impression is gone before talking about a book. But this time, the first impression is the true impression.

This book is childhood. We all had one. And at some point, it had to die. All that’s left are memories, which are completely separate from the real thing. Adults’ memories of childhood are like a child’s imaginings of adulthood: idealized and distorted, as if viewed from the bottom of a pond as deep as the ocean.

Or, as Gaiman puts it, “Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

Our unnamed narrator starts off the story as a middle-aged man attending a funeral in his hometown. It’s been some years, and he goes back to visit the places of his childhood with a deep sense of loss, eventually making it to the farmhouse at the end of the lane. A girl used to live there, when he was seven. He can’t remember her exactly, other than she went somewhere far away–Australia, was it?–and she never came back. He sits on a bench beside the pond she told him was an ocean. Silly things, children say. A pond can’t be an ocean. Oceans are bigger than seas, which are much bigger than ponds.

Then, as he looks into the still water of the pond, he starts to remember. Things that no adult can remember looking back on their own childhood, because he remembers not only what happened but also understands it through the lens of age and experience. What happened back then, what he’d forgotten up until this moment, seems very significant

So begins the story, which I will tell you nothing about. It needs to be experienced for yourself, and it will mean something different to you than it did to me. All I can tell you is that it’s beautiful, and terrible, and frightening and real. It will make your hair stand on end, it will make you nod your head in agreement. This is, using the narrator’s terminology, “true art.” It feel like it has been a part of the world forever, and we’ve only just recently unearthed it.

One sample, not even related to the plot, of how true this is. A lot of people have latched onto a quote of Lettie Hempstock about there being no adults anywhere, which is just fabulous, but this quote was the first of a great many to bring me to tears. The narrator had previously explained that his father doesn’t like toasters so he makes all the their toast on the broiler, where it inevitably burns:

At home my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.

So read this. Please, if you read anything this year. One reviewer said this book is for anyone who’s ever been a child. And I will agree. Gaiman describes his magic in a way you could almost believe it, and certainly leaves you wishing such things existed, somewhere in the world outside of our memories.

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Never Trust a Writer Who Doesn’t Read

I would make a terrible professional reviewer.

For one thing, I’m too slow. I’d never get paid.

Also, I only read things that interest me, and if I lose that interest, often I won’t finish the book.

(Take, for instance, the painfully beautiful The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I read the first chapter online, got sucked in, asked for it as an anniversary present and then stopped halfway through, just as it was getting good. Why? Maybe Mabel’s completely justified negative attitude toward nature finally got on my nerves, who knows. Perhaps I’ll pick it back up someday and find out.)

I don’t read deep enough within the confines of a genre to be any sort of expert on anything (except Sub-Roman Britain, I am proud to say, and who the heck even knows what that is?)

I don’t even read new books, or popular ones. My ticket for the bandwagon got lost somewhere with my notice for what exactly is a hashtag. And important books? Calling someone “the most important author under 35 writing with a quill in the second decade of the twenty-first century” is more than enough to make me press the snooze button.

My opinions on the books I read aren’t even that reliable. My first impressions are almost always wrong. Either I’ll love a book and later realize I was delusional, or I’ll slog through something, only to come to the conclusion that it says everything I wish I could and should be embossed in gold and preserved in amber. Maybe I read with my Empathy Switch turned up to eleven, I don’t know. My head and my heart aren’t always connected.

(Another example: back in 2007 I wrote a review for a now-defunct YA blog about Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that pretty much revealed how much I didn’t get YA at all. I liked the story, but the writing annoyed me. Since then, I’ve reread the book as well as dipped into Alexie’s other work. Suffice to say I was definitely wrong the first time around.)

Even so, I feel compelled to talk about the books I love, as well as the ones I just don’t get. Not because I feel my opinion is important, but because I love books. Never trust a writer who doesn’t read, and how will you know if she reads if she doesn’t talk about books?

So every once in a while I will bring to you a book report of sorts, less of a Kirkus and more of a personal reflection, how I reacted to the story and what it means to me, from a writer’s perspective. Since everything that comes out had to first go in, everything I write is because I absolutely cannot stop myself from reading. Isn’t that the point of books? It’s communication. I’d just like to add a little to the conversation.

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