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Off the Shelves: New novel revisits old ideas, but still magical

POSTED: July 28, 2013 1:00 a.m.

“Words save our lives, sometimes.”

Author Neil Gaiman states this in his acknowledgements at the end of his latest novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” his first adult book since he wrote “The Anansi Boys” in 2005.

One can tell how Gaiman does not only take pleasure in writing, but it is a salve for him. It is his way of bringing a magical element into an otherwise mundane reality. Almost as much as his characters, it gives him life.

The distinctive fantasy Gaiman weaves takes on a dark, horrific tone in “Ocean,” in which a middle-aged man recounts an episode from his childhood upon returning to his hometown in Sussex after 40 years. When he was 7 years old, a traumatic incident triggers a series of supernatural events, involving a family of immortals, a duck pond that is an ocean, a monster from another world and reality-eating birds.

The boy is befriended by Lettie Hempstock, who lives on the Hempstock Farm with her mother and grandmother. They are the keepers of magical secrets and skills. They use these powers to protect the boy from a monster, in the guise of a housekeeper, who has taken his family under her wicked influence. Courage, wit and perseverance are the boy’s only weapons against the pursuing darkness in the story about friendship and sacrifice that can truly change the world.

While the novel is not long — a quick read at 180 pages — plenty of action and drama occur in a short span. The young boy, whose name we never learn, experiences heartbreak, terror, wonder and joy in swift succession between events happening at such a rapid-fire pace one may have to temporarily put the book down to catch a breath.

For Gaiman fans, much of the book will feel familiar a the author recycles themes from his previous novels. In particular, I couldn’t help but notice parallels to “Coraline,” in which a child must face a witch-like female entity that takes possession of her family. Both even have black cats as the child’s guide. There is a hint of “Neverwhere,” as well, as the concept of people as doors between worlds is used.

Familiar themes, plus the nostalgic tone of childhood innocence, lead me to believe the novel was a therapeutic venture instead of a entertaining story for Gaiman. He is not breaking ground or exploring new territory. He is returning to ideas he clearly enjoys and verbally crafts with such precise beauty.

A danger arises when an author writes for his own creative indulgence. He might connect with other readers going through similar feelings, or he might alienate them since the topic may be too personal for others to understand.

The book has received critiques from both sides of that scale, but it is inarguably brave for an author to expose the “veins” of his creative soul willingly, despite the reception of his work.

If you have not read Gaiman’s work before, it will not reflect the kind of humor and originality in his other works, but it may be a good place to start. Readers will get a taste of the whimsy this master of fantasy can concoct.

If you are a Neil Gaiman fan, you will undoubtedly enjoy “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” 

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.


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