Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

My first thought upon finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was “why isn’t this a short story?” It was oddly satisfying to find this in the acknowledgement section:

This novel began, although I did not know it was going to be a novel at the time, when Jonathan Strahan asked me to write him a short story. I started to tell the story of the opal miner and the Hempstock family (who have lived in the farm in my head for such a long time), and Jonathan was forgiving and kind when I finally admitted to myself and to him that this wasn’t a short story, and I let it become a novel instead.

I don’t usually begrudge Gaiman a few extra chapters because he has created many weird and beautiful images over the years, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is thin. The unnamed narrator accompanies his neighbor, Lettie Hempstock, to dispel an otherworldly creature. After he disobeys Lettie’s instructions, the creature follows him home in the form of a beautiful (and super creepy) woman named Ursula Monkton. Because the story is told as a flashback, you know the narrator isn’t at risk of dying at age seven. There’s not much suspense in this story, no matter how menacing Ursula Monkton becomes.

Even when I don’t like his stories, I usually enjoy Gaiman’s light, magical tone. Here, though, it feels phoned in, like he’s ticking boxes. With the exception of the Hempstocks, everyone is flat and interchangeable. The narrator’s father, mother, and sister are generic and forgettable—they lack names and distinct qualities. I don’t feel right labeling this a weakness or drawback since it’s something Gaiman did intentionally:

Names do have power in this book, and naming things and people was something that fascinated me. None of his family have names, after all. They just have roles. (interview with Joe Hill)

Why is this desirable? There’s a moment when the narrator is hiding from creepy beings who assume the shape of his family to trick him out of hiding. Readers can’t always play along with little mysteries, but while I was trying to sort out whether the people were real or fake it occurred to me that I knew nothing about his family. Ultimately, the narrator only knows they aren’t his family because they can’t pass a magical boundary. He doesn’t evaluate their personalities or mannerisms, because they don’t have personalities or mannerisms. Similarly, the old version of the narrator that opens and closes the book is wishy-washy and undefined. Sure, there’s a nice dreamy vibe going on, but I want something to grab hold of.

Wishy-washiness can’t pass for magic. Consider this passage, where the narrator finally figures out the name of the adorable kitten who follows him around:

She had such unusual eyes. They made me think of the seaside, and so I called her Ocean, and could not have told you why. (236)

But you just told us why. You said her eyes reminded you of the seaside. A water-related name at this point is not a surprise. If Gaiman wants to imply that some soft impulse in the boy’s brain has finally comprehended the cat’s name, this passage should be something like, “She had such unusual eyes. They made me think of the seaside, and so I called her Table and could not have told you why.” This is why you should listen to Neil Gaiman’s stories instead of reading them. The way his wonderful voice would drag out this passage would make you imagine the adorable kitten finally revealing her name and you’d feel something. In print, though? Nothing.

There are some pretty passages about the magic of childhood, but—again—these would have worked in a short story. If you’d like to read a Gaiman book about the awkwardness of childhood and weird neighbors, I’d start with Coraline.

Overall: 2.5 (out of 5)  Two-point-something scores always look harsh, but this book felt well below average to me. If you’ve got ten minutes and would like to hear what Gaiman’s wonderful voice can do with one of his newer stories, turn off the lights and check out “Click Clack the Rattle Bag” right here.

Review: Coraline

coraline_cover20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 5

Desperate to make progress in the reading challenge hosted by Cathy746books, I grabbed a short one. Coraline, by Neil Gaiman, clocks in at 162 pages and a 90 minute reading time. Even if you’ve seen the movie, there are enough differences that the book is superior. Book-Coraline doesn’t rely on an irritating sidekick; she’s cleverer and self-reliant. There’s a cast of helpers behind her, but Coraline must sort out their cryptic help alone. The film, by making Coraline a supporting character in her own story, overlooks the fun and adventure of the original.

From the back cover:
When Coraline steps through a door to find another house strangely similar to her own (only better), but full of fantastic turns and things seem marvelous. But there’s another mother there, and another father, and they want her to stay and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go. Coraline will have to fight with all her wits and courage if she is to save herself and return to her ordinary life.

I’m going to keep this review vague. The story is simple (predictable, in some ways), but contains precise turns and beautiful details. The less you know going in, the more enjoyable it is to read. Coraline’s life with her real parents isn’t unhappy, but it’s filled with the annoyances that populate the kid-leaves-home-to-appreciate-home genre: busy, inattentive parents; new house/neighborhood; having to finish dinner. This section is so pat that the reader is happy to meet the other mother quickly. Of course, she’s contrasted with Coraline’s actual family:

“Yes,” said the other mother. “It wasn’t the same here without you. But we knew you’d arrive one day, and then we could be a proper family. Would you like some more chicken?”
It was the best chicken that Coraline had ever eaten. Her mother sometimes made chicken, but it was always out of packets or frozen, and was very dry, and it never tasted of anything. When Coraline’s father cooked chicken he bought real chicken, but he did strange things to it, like stewing it in wine, or stuffing it with prunes, or baking it in pastry, and Coraline would always refuse to touch it on principal. (29)

It’s the initial normalcy of this other world that’s intriguing. The other mother’s house is parallel to Coraline’s own and familiar, but new enough to offer places to explore and something to do. The other world breaks up her summer tedium and feels fresh and welcome, even as she greets it with suspicion. The best scenes are her interactions with the other mother. These exchanges allow endless avenues for the story because the other mother is so… well, other. It’s tricky to get a read on the extent of her capabilities or MO. She’s everywhere in the tiny world that she created to ensnare Coraline and the setting illuminates her ability (or inability) to understand Coraline and offers hints to her character.

The detail that everyone grabs onto in this book is the button eyes of Coraline’s other family. It’s a great detail and shown to great effect in the film. I was lucky enough to hear Gaiman speak about this book a few years ago and someone asked about the button eyes. Gaiman described them as a spur of the moment, tiny decision that grew to a large thing within his fan base. You never know the detail that a readership will respond to. That’s part of the fun of writing. Here’s a great clip of Gaiman talking about the fear of buttons:

Don’t you want to read his book now?

Overall: 4.3 It’s a light, fun book that feels like it’s missing…something. The details are original, but the baseline story is something that has been done many, many times. Gaiman does it better than most (if not all), but it’s not the most satisfying thing he’s written.

Translation: Read it. What, you don’t have 90 minutes? Read it before bed; that’s the best time for it.