The Ocean at the end of the lane – Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the end of the lane is many things – part fantasy; both heartwarming and, in parts very dark; part reflection on the wonder of childhood and the hazy memories adults have of those years; and part a look at what it is to be a child who feels feel distant from and misunderstood by their parents and the adult world.

A man (I’m not sure we even learn his name, actually, despite being the protagonist) visits his rural childhood home, which conjures up memories of a time when he was seven and entered into some surprising and terrifying adventures.

His parents had recruited a childminder, Ursula Monkton, who charmed everyone but the protagonist. It turns out her perfect body was a shell for a monster who wanted to devour him, and nobody but he could see her true nature. There is a shocking scene in which the boy’s Dad – who often shouts but is not normally murderous – tries to drown him whilst, it appears, under the thrall of Ursula.

He enlisted the help of the Hempstock family from the farm down the road, who it turns out are thousands of years old and have magical powers. Together they fought off the ‘hunger birds’, which wanted to kill the boy too. Gaiman has a brilliant concept here, with these birds who eat the very fabric of reality:

“Where it devoured the grass, nothing remained – a perfect nothing, only a colour that reminded me of grey, but a formless, pulsing grey… This was the void. Not blackness, not nothingness. This was what lay behind the thickly painted scrim of reality.”

One of these ‘vultures of the void’ as he calls them, kills Lettie Hempstock rather than the boy – or, not kills, but temporarily drains her of life and the she enters the ocean at the end of the lane to regenerate, which is where 40 years later he finds the Hempstocks, with Lettie still in repair.

It ends with an exchange in which Ginnie Hempstock says to him “Lettie did a very big thing for you. I think she mostly wants to find out what happened next, and whether it was worth the sacrifice.”

“Did I pass?” he aks

She replies: “You don’t pass or fail as a person, dear.”

It is these nuggets of brilliance combined with the story itself, which so subtly evokes the sense of being a child in adult world, of your imagination and inner life being beyond the grasp of your parents, that make this an incredible book. 

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Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is a fantastic story about Richard, a young office worker who, because of a random act of kindness, slips into ‘Under London’, a parallel world that exists in the sewers and underground where all the misfits and weirdness of London has fallen.
Part steampunk, part mystery, part straight-out fantasy, this is a fun and readable story.

The plot centres on Richard who, after helping a girl on the street called Door who is able to create and unlock doors to different worlds, falls into Under London. They embark on a voyage to help door find justice for the death of her family and, through the journey, meet a host of people and creatures and visit amazing places: Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar the assassins, the Marquis of Carabas, Old Bailey the bird, the angel called Angel Islington, Hunter, former protector of the Atlantis, the floating market …

The book compares, interestingly, with China Mievelle’s Unlundun, which also uses the device of an underside to London. Both are fantastical, and both use the ordinariness of the person from London to explore the strangeness. of its other. Both are clever books, with Gaiman’s perhaps a little straighter – both in the sense that it’s not quite as wacky, and in the sense that it has fewer obvious critical theory references.

That said, there’s a brilliant line from Door in Neverwhere, hinting at the way there is even an excess of time:

There are little bubbles of of time in London, where things and places stay the same … There’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere – it doesn’t all get used up at once.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Read July 2015

American gods is the story of shadow, a quiet hard man, out of prison, wife dead, recruited to be the minder for what it turns out is a God. He is drawn into an underworld, existing beneath contemporary America, in which the Gods of old are. Battling for relevance in a consumerist age. It’s an interesting theme, the protagonist is great to follow, although a bit too perfect, and the plot draws you in. I got a bit lost 2/3 of the way in when it turned to lots of description and was less plot driven, but it’s a good back that balances mystery and fantasy well.

It was followed by a short story – The Monarch of the Glen – where Shadow is in Scotland and is chosen, Gladiator style, to fight for the humans against the monsters, in a house party for the mega rich, which is a modern version of a ritual that has taken place annually for thousands of years. Because – but largely because – we already know Shadow, this feels a stronger, more engaging and punchier story than American Gods.