Childhood terrors revisited in 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane'

Neil Gaiman beckons readers into the dark side of childhood, while delivering a page-turning, modern-day fairy tale


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Neil Gaiman is having a conversation with readers in "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," and it's an uncomfortable one -- in other words, just what the writer's avid fans clamor for.

The narrator, the unnamed "I" of the story, starts in a real-world scenario, a visit to his childhood home because of the death of a loved one. A compulsion to get away leads him to follow a memory back in time, to his 7-year-old self, sparking a confession about a dark, dangerous time that only the mind of Mr. Gaiman could conjure.

In his latest twisted trip through a fully realized fantasy-horror realm, the award-winning author of "Neverwhere," "American Gods" and "The Graveyard Book" had me exactly where he wanted me -- shifting nervously in my seat and compelled to turn the pages until the end of the eerie ride.


"THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE"

By Neil Gaiman
William Morrow, ($25.99).


Promotional releases tout "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" as Mr. Gaiman's first adult novel since "The Anansi Boys" in 2005, and there are themes from the earlier novel that re-emerge in this 176-page book.

Yet, with the exception of one disturbing, implicit sex scene -- described through the eyes of the boy -- this latest work seems to be more along the lines of the Brothers Grimm delivering Hansel and Gretel into the candy-covered home of a flesh-eating witch, or a human being turned into a vampire by her undead husband while she delivers their baby (thank you for that image, "Twilight"; sorry for the spoiler).

Mr. Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book," which opens with a family being slashed to death, was honored with the Newbery Award for children's literature, so why go to pains to label "Ocean" a novel strictly for adults?

The point to be made is that Mr. Gaiman employs his gifts for lyricism and the power of an unfettered imagination to transform porridge into a mouth-watering meal or a piece of cloth into a nightmarish menace.

In "Ocean," we are transported to the world of a lonely, bullied 7-year-old as his family takes in a boarder to make ends meet. The opal miner arrives for a stay and brings with him tragedy, forecast when his car runs over the boy's cat. The opal miner is soon discovered dead of an apparent suicide in the back of the family's car, which has come to rest on the nearby farm of the Hempstock women.

There's Old Mrs. Hempstock, ancient in appearance and manner; her sturdy and kind daughter Ginnie; and her granddaughter, 11-year-old Lettie. Seemingly sensible Lettie befriends the boy, who is delighted to be accepted into her company. When the boy awakes from a nightmare, choking on a coin, Lettie realizes that a force has been unleashed, one that will inevitably cross the line from wish fulfillment to catastrophe.

In an attempt to vanquish the unleashed force, Lettie unwittingly imperils the boy and his family, allowing horrific creatures and mythical events to spiral out of control until everyone and everything is up for grabs.

At the center is the boy, until now an unremarkable fellow who finds solace in books and imagination. In the midst of the darkness suddenly engulfing his world, he has found a reality worth holding onto: Lettie, his steadfast friend and defender.

Mr. Gaiman draws you in with minute detail -- a cow named Rhiannon; a dead fish, silver as a coin; a dress "flapping like the mainsail of a ship, on an endless ocean, under an orange sky." He orchestrates visuals with words; at any moment, a scene may be lit by a television screen or lost in utter blackness.

His tone, through it all, invites the reader to be a co-conspirator in the awful, amazing time of the narrator's life. We willingly follow him down this new lane, into danger zones and around tragic turns, and with an ocean unlike any other at the end of it, because there are so many rewards along the way.

That's the allure of getting lost in a Neil Gaiman world.

bookreviews

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published August 11, 2013 4:00 AM


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