The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

December 15, 2013 at 16:19 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror) (, , , )




The harshest and truest criticism that ought to be levelled at this book, is that it is a very good fairy tale. Few recent books can honestly be said to have made no mistakes, no one foot placed wrong; and yet be so palpably missing something. There are really very few causes for complaint. Gaiman is certainly over-fond of commas, and sprinkles them with a vexing prodigality through his book. The story recalls in a dim sort of way the work of Susanna Clarke (which is completely unsurprising, considering the connection between the two authors) but is entirely enterprising and thoroughly original.

It is, as noted above, a very good fairy tale. That ought to be enough, but any reader finishing this story will not be able to escape the feeling that this novel might easily have been seminal. It could have been Gaiman’s best, and the best fantasy in a decade, and a flawless work that would have other writers gnawing their own hair in envy. Instead, it is just very good.

Perhaps this has something to do with its haphazard and unintentional inception. By all accounts, Gaiman intended to write a short unpublished story, then a short published story, then a novella, then a full novel. As it is, it tallies up to be a rather brief novel, and it might be that there are details that could have been eased out onto unspoiled pages, deeper plots, deeper characters, a fuller tale.

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”

-The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Again, it must be emphasised: this is not a case of a story feeling half-baked, or of questions left unanswered, or of a rushed plot stapled together to meet a publisher’s deadline. This story is complete, and it is very good. Another way of looking at it might be the fierce regimentation of the various adventures and plots in the story. There is the funereal visit at the beginning, for instance. It arrives, there are some pleasing interior monologues, and once that part of the story is over the viewpoint and the flavour shift abruptly. Later, there is the crisis with Ursula and the Roald Dahlian imprisonment within one’s home–which is terrifically written and both thrilling, and tense and suspenseful–which is concluded, resolved, and finished.

Gaiman isolates these separate incidents from each other, and once one crisis or adventure or stream of thought is concluded, it does not really arise again. There is nothing to be said against his narration. His voice is crisp and clean, and it is melancholic without being morbid, youthful without being juvenile, dark without despondence. It seems rather that he might have returned to the draft a few times, and out of the neatly planted and segmented seeds of a story, cultivated a rich and flowing garden of an epic.

This is a story that readers will appreciate and remember, but not for all that long. It is not a story to change lives or inspire deep and permanent longing and wistful love, but it is a story that while it lasts is captivating.


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Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

February 26, 2012 at 13:43 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )


Unfortunately, the prospect of this book is more interesting than the book itself. Two of contemporary fantasy’s most celebrated authors, conspiring together to pen an off-beat account of the apocalypse sounds like an excellent idea, and the inclusion of so many incredibly British institutions gives the immediate feeling of an invitation to a place of private camaraderie. It seems like Gaiman has both darkened and matured Pratchett’s writing, although the veneer of the story and many of its smaller details would not seem misplaced on the pages of any of the Discworld novels. In fact, this is in spite of the constant postscripts and addendums (or addenda, if you like) which make a great deal of the fact that neither author really knows who was responsible for what writing. It can only be said that if this is true, then Neil Gaiman has learned to write very much like Terry Pratchett. There are some very apparent echoes of The Satanic Verses in here, with Crowley and Aziraphale attempting to fill the shoes of Gibreel and Saladin. Unsurprisingly, Rushdie writes angels and demons better; somewhat more surprisingly, Rushdie is also funnier while doing it, and the sort of magical realism he captured is poorly replicated in Good Omens which is more of a magical magical book despite its real world setting.

“‘My people are more than happy for it to happen, you know. It’s what it’s all about, you see. The great final test. Flaming swords, the Four Horsemen, seas of blood, the whole tedious business.’ He shrugged.

‘And then Game Over, Insert Coin?’ said Crowley.”

-Good Omens

Considering the usual subjects and the well-publicised beliefs of both writers, it is then very surprising to find that the overwhelming flavour of this book is that of a prayer. Not a pious paternoster or a meek Gethsemane sort of prayer, but a prayer like one of the angry Psalms, or like Job. Essentially, the final third of the book (or more than that) is taken up with the writers slamming the brakes on the sort of apocalypse Tim LaHaye has instructed us to expect, and asking why in the world it has to be like that. The light humour and the dark humour and the quaintness and the winsomely awful puns and the absurdism is placed firmly on the shelf, and the book becomes something of a manifesto–except instead of saying that this is how the world is, and such-and-such is how I would do things, if I were God–the manifesto asks plaintively (and frequently angrily) why are things not this way?

There are occasional digs at aspects of organised religion or pieces of theology that either Pratchett or Gaiman find obtuse, but generally what these authors do is set out their own systematic theology, and despairingly ask why God–or people, or religion–is not like that. This does not make for entertaining writing, for the most part. It does not even make for very provocative writing, of the kind Pratchett came up with in Small Gods, for instance. Nor is it bad writing. Both of these writers are so naturally skilled and so incredibly experienced that it would be difficult to dismiss any of their work as downright bad. Make no mistake: anyone who picks up this book will finish it remarkably quickly and with plenty of chuckling. But it will not shake anyone to their core. It is a little smug, rather angry, and every so often moving, but it does not have much to offer either in the spheres of philosophy, religion, or good comedy literature.

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