Book review: Bedtime stories for big people

Neil Gaiman’s latest book is for adults who can remember what it was like to be a child.

Anam Haq July 21, 2013
Neil Gaiman’s latest book is for adults who can remember what it was like to be a child.

When the distant literary cousins, fantasy and children’s literature, get married the latter often emerges as the dominant spouse. In the few strange cases that fantasy ends up on top, the couple is relegated to the “sci-fi” or “cult” side of the family. In some cases they go to Hollywood. Rarely, however, does this union end up in the most appreciated genre of all — fiction. I speak here of fiction that can be read by adults, young adults, and yes, children too. This means that the text opens itself to interpretations, ranging from the mundane to the magical. This kind of vitality in a text, in which the reader has complete freedom to create their own world within its world, is Neil Gaiman’s gift — and I love it.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is technically a novel for adults but in true Gaiman spirit, it only really shares its secrets with a few — in this case, those adults who can remember what it was like to be a child. If you can remember how it felt to be seven, have no control over your life and have your decisions made for you even if your nanny were a nasty piece of otherworld evil, then you are tall enough for this ride, as Gaiman put it in an interview with The Independent.

The narrator is a middle-aged man, who in Proustian fashion falls into his memories in an ocean, which is really a pond. Or a pond which is really an ocean, depending on the reader’s imagination. He remembers his seventh birthday at home in Sussex, to which no one came, his kitten that was run over, the family lodger who killed himself in the family car, and Lettie Hempstock of the mysterious and magical Hempstock women who lived down the lane in a farm with an ocean in their backyard and a full moon all year round.

He remembers meeting Lettie who had been eleven for a very long time, on the day that the suicide happens, and starts a Sussex-specific cosmic plague. The effect is that everyone starts getting what they want, money, sex... The nameless seven-year-old narrator, however, ends up with the one thing he didn’t want: an evil specter that has escaped from another world and has lodged in his foot.

Thus starts the Gaimanesque fairytale: A resolute main character in a world that is at once strangely familiar (or familiarly strange), struggling to right what is wrong and gain some sense of control in the confounding mess of growing up.

Having said that, there is one major difference between this and Gaiman’s other books in which most of his work has a sense of hope and personal victory for the main character. This narration doesn’t lend itself to a reassuring end. The narrator returns from the recollections of his seven-year-old self to a life that is less than ordinary. This is a life that bears no mark of the magic of his younger self and perhaps as old Mrs Hempstock hints, a life that might not be worth the sacrifices made for it. In many ways, this is a musing on most our lives. We all experienced some magic as children, whether it be the explanation of a creaking door as a bhoot or perhaps the comforting presence of an invisible friend and ally. But as we cross the unseen boundary of maturity, these presences leave us, leaving our lives so much less charmed and more uninspiring.

There are, however, sections in the book which are nothing if not painstakingly detailed in description and bone-chillingly horrific in the reality of it all. At one point, the narrator’s father (a slave now to the evil nanny, or perhaps just a slave to his desires), plunges his seven-year-old son, clothes and all into an ice-cold bath and holds him in there. The cruelty of this scene is evoked by the father’s premeditative removal of his watch and loosening of the tie before he seizes his son in what is obviously an attempt to drown him. The starkness of this entire scene serves as a jolt, a cold shock to the reader as well as the narrator that enchantment isn’t for children only and even adults can be helpless and more importantly, wrong.

There is an immense amount of maturity in this writing — a grainy mesh of memory and reflection. The wonder and recognition of a child’s mind intersects with the nostalgia and regret of an adult’s memory. Gaiman’s work is autobiographical but will find resonance with all those readers who have in their childhood read the inexplicable mysteries in an otherwise increasingly bare world. They will appreciate moments such as this one, in which the narrator is engulfed in the ocean at the end of the lane: “I saw the world I had walked since my birth, and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”

If you liked this:

The Graveyard Book

After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own. Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn't live in a sprawling graveyard. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack — who has already killed Bod's family.

Coraline (2009)

This 2002 horror/fantasy novella won Gaiman several awards and was turned into a film. It is about a locked door that Coraline discovers in the old house where she lives that has been divided into flats. She is warned not to go near it, which means her curiousity got the better of her. She discovers a passageway that leads to a mirror reality of her life, replete with an Other Mother and Other Father. Coraline is warned again not to venture too far into this Other World. What happens when she disobeys...

Dr Who: The Doctor’s Wife

This episode was Neil Gaiman’s first venture into writing for the television series Dr Who. Gaiman brought a surprisingly human touch to the otherwise lonely character of The Doctor. He succeeded in doing so with the enigmatic character of Idris, who The Doctor teams up with to regain control of the lost TARDIS, the time-traveling machine.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 21st, 2013.

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John Robinson | 10 years ago | Reply

Just finished that book myself. A really interesting read - kind of a modern day dark coming-of-age fairy tale. But why not consider reviewing my book of nearly the same name: Bedtime Stories for Elders: What Fairy Tales Can Teach Us About the New Aging. It contains ten tales, new and old, about aging bringing new insights and possibilities to the aging experience. Great bedtime reading. Take a look! Best wishes, John Robinson

Good Stuff! | 10 years ago | Reply

I love his work!! Will give this one a try too!

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