The Faintest Inklings: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
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The Faintest Inklings: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

By Steven Lloyd Wilson and Joanna Robinson | Book Reviews | November 15, 2013 | Comments ()


Welcome to the inaugural meeting of the Faintest Inklings, our very Pajiban book club that we hope will be successful and lead to much insightful discussion, eventual book deals, and devastating cocaine habits. If you missed the announcement a couple of weeks ago, you can read it here and we’ll jump right into the discussion on this page.

Dearly literate, we have gathered here today to speak about Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane. It should go without saying that in depth discussion of a book will involve spoilers as to the plot of said book. This is why we assigned the reading three weeks ago. Do keep up.

Steven Lloyd Wilson: So in brief, I found the book to be fantastic. In Gaiman’s earlier books, I always felt that there was this level of self-consciousness to his writing. That while they are beautifully written, they always seem to have this subtle sheen over the story where you can sense the fingerprints of the author being conscious at all times of what he is writing. There’s almost a hesitancy where you can read between the lines “ah hah, I am writing a fairy tale”. In Stardust it was most apparent, but it was always there, except perhaps in Sandman.

I don’t know if I’m describing it very well. But that sense is gone in Ocean. In this story Gaiman comes into his own and the story exists on its own with a confidence of storytelling that was not there before.

Joanna Robinson: I completely agree. Some of the preciousness that can be found in Gaiman’s other work is completely absent here. While many of his recent books (Coraline, The Graveyard Book) were marketed for both children and adults, this is very conspicuously an “adult” book. Sure, there’s a child protagonist and strange and wonderful things occur, but it has such sad, adult themes that I would only encourage the most mature youngster to read it. Gaiman also famously wrote this book for his wife, the musician Amanda Palmer who, according to Gaiman, doesn’t like sci-fi/fantasy. I think that’s why the fantasy and mythic elements feel so grounded in reality and in, as we suggested in the discussion questions, science. This is Gaiman’s attempt at writing a modern story while incorporating some of the elements from classic mythology. Do you want to walk us through some of those elements, Professor?

SLW: Why in the world would a renowned fantasy author marry someone who professes to not like the genre? What do they talk about? Sports? Garfield? That’s like a famous chef marrying someone without taste buds. Inexplicable, and completely irrelevant to the question at hand, I suppose.

As far as mythology goes, the strongest element is the use of maiden, mother, and crone. But it’s done subtly enough that I didn’t even register how the Hempstocks mapped onto the archetypes until the very end of the novel. And that’s because the mythological elements of the novel are not there just as references, not just there for the reader to feel smart about recognizing them: ooh three linked magical women, maiden-mother-crone for the bingo! No, the mythology exists seamlessly with the world. Like Joanna said, the magic feels grounded, and not just because it’s plausible but because he wrote this for someone who didn’t like fantasy, so every fantastic element is meticulously chosen in order to dovetail with the overall themes of the story. So that by the end, there’s a sense of inevitability, that the things that are fantastic in the story have to be fantastic for the story to be told.

Which I suppose ties into what the narrator (let’s just call him the Boy from now on to make it easier, since he doesn’t have a name) says about disliking fairy tales but loving mythology. Myths are told to make the world make sense. They only contain fantasy in so far as it simplifies the explanation of the world. This story is mythology because of Gaiman forcing himself to remain grounded, to use the story as a way to explain something, but with the subtle grin of checkmate against the fantasy-challenged in that he meticulously chose that something such that it required fantasy to explain it. So I guess the real question is, what is that something that Gaiman answers with this novel?

JR: Well for that I think we have to look at the frame narrative. We meet our protagonist (the Man that the Boy becomes) ducking out of his father’s wake. If Gaiman was indeed setting out to write something more adult, universal and Amanda Palmer-friendly, then he couldn’t have have picked a more commonly shared experience than that. It’s one thing to confront your own adulthood. That’s something many of us avoid for years. (Still avoiding, thank you very much.) It’s another to confront your own mortality. When a parent dies (I assume, I’m lucky enough to still have mine), you’re forced to stare down the twin barrels of adulthood and mortality. When his father dies, the Boy no longer has the luxury of being the son. Now he’s absolutely and without question the Man.

Despite the magick, the evil nannies and the bewitching Hempstocks, I really feel like this boils down to a story of fathers and sons and the thresholds we all have to cross. For me, the scariest moment of the book was not when Lettie Hempstock is attacked (though that was terrifying), it’s when Father holds our young narrator underwater. The Boy experiences the worst aspects of his father and of manhood (lust, aggression) but also, in that final fairy ring scene, confronts the worst and seeks out the best. He tries to understand his father as a human, not an archetype. I don’t know, maybe I’m projecting. What do you think about that notion of fathers and sons as the major theme? And, if that’s the case, what’s the significance in The Man Who Was Once A Boy forgetting this story over and over?

SLW: The wonderful thing about human beings is that we can learn from experience, but our great tragedy is that we can only learn from experience. Growing up is when you can see your parents as actual people like you are, not some sort of person who fits in another category of existence. When you get old enough that you can remember your father when he was younger than you are now, that shakes you, as do the memories of when you glimpsed behind the mask of the Father and saw your dad as a human being for the first time. This story is very much about a Man remembering when he saw his father that way for the first time, and for all the fantastic wrapping, the glimpses are so mundane that they are painful: violence in the bath, screwing the nanny against the fireplace.

I think the key to the entire book is that beautiful metaphor about how adulthood is a mask, how everyone really is still just the same child inside. But when we wear that mask, most of us forget that it’s a mask. And our protagonist can only remember being the Boy when he takes off the mask of being the Man. He needs to take it off though, because on the day of his father’s funeral what he needs more than anything is to remember his father as a man, for all his faults, rather than as the elder he would become. He needs to see his father as he himself is now, which is only possible through the eyes of his childhood.

It’s like a mirror of the Hempstocks: three faces of one being. Of course that still leaves the question of how Ursula fits into this.

JR: Well it’s what she represents to the Father, right? The sexual threat and temptation. She also perverts the caretaker role as well. Both of those things, the humanizing of father and the Boy’s impotent frustration of being left in the wrong hands, force him to grow up immediately.

That’s probably quite enough of us babbling. We really want this to be a group discussion so please weigh in with your thoughts below. You can jump off the discussion up here or start your very own line of thought. All comments and questions are welcome. There are NO wrong answers or opinions or theories. Tell us if you hated it. Tell us if you couldn’t finish it. Tell us if you loved it. Tell us if it’s your new favorite Gaiman. Recommend other Gaiman books you liked better. Tell us if you think we’re wrong in our assessment. We want to hear it all.

Also, to be better tapped into the community, won’t you go “like” our Facebook page? We’ll have news and the occasional giveaways over there and it’s a great place for you to connect with other voracious readers.

If there’s enough discussion and interest here, we’re contemplating expanding this concept in a number of directions so please don’t be shy, your feedback is so essential to this project going forward. We also hope you’ll join us for the next meeting of the Faintest Inklings on Friday, December 13th (dunh dunh dunh). We’ve selected The Hobbit. Why? The better to criticize Peter Jackson’s bloated adaptation, my dears. So if you have somehow lived to the ripe old age of *mumble cough* without owning a copy of The Hobbit, won’t you use our sponsored link? Proceeds from those sales go to help fight Cancer, a cause near and dear to our bookish hearts. So hit us up with your thoughts in the comments and we’ll see you next month for a lot more scathe and b*tch.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • axis2clusterB

    I got so into this book thatI didn't even notice the main character was never named. It was perfection for me.

  • You MUST keep doing this!

    I've had The Ocean at the End of the Lane on my shelves for months, and this was the necessary trigger to read it (in a day last week). It was terribly worth it.

    More subtly than with American Gods, Gaiman has managed to insert mythic standards into a great, sad, difficult tale. Very much enjoyed, though I won't review it on Goodreads until after I re-read it. I need to see what I missed.

  • lozymandias

    Firstly, great club idea, having drunk in the Eagle and Child, it's perfectly atmospheric for discussions such as these!

    Have to say I got the fate/maiden, mother, crone thing straight away, but having read the Piers Anthony 'Incarnations of Immortality' series, I think it'd be tough not to.

    I generally love this book, the one criticism I'd have is that 'Boy' gets away from Ursula too quickly. The time where she's trapped him is powerful and traumatic, but I thought it was over very quickly and easily (compared to some of Roald Dahl's books). In terms of pacing it certainly rattles along (*cough*American Gods*cough*) but I felt the escape could have been thwarted once or twice more.

    For me it also plays with a very straight bat. There's no real twist (I'm not counting the fact that he's come back a number of times as it has nothing to do with the story) or reveal. Certainly nothing like Neverwhere or American Gods or Anansi Boys (or even Starburst). It's a more classic faerie tale (it's probably pretentious to spell faerie that way, but I. Don't. Care.)

    It's not my favourite Gaiman (that's Neverwhere, but I am a Londonder), but it is a lovely little book. Sort of Matilda, crossed with Starburst, crossed with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime.

    Oh, on the Amanda Palmer thing, maybe because people are often attracted on other levels and don't require their parterns to be into every little thing that they are? There seems like an awful lot of jealous nerd backlash to Palmer just because she's married to Gaiman. It clearly hasn't affected his output and she seems to make him happy so, could maybe let it go?

  • I agree about escaping from Ursula. The middle 40 pages dragged a bit for me because there was not a lot of action, and not a twist. Ursula makes the ultimate threat for our Narrator, but then he literally waits her out. It was the only part of the book that really left me wanting.

  • NorthBy39Steps

    I'm not surprised in the least to see so many love this book (I also thinks it's great), but I am a little bewildered when it comes to it's seemingly unanimous praise here in the comments. While I loved the boy's insights into the minutia of his everyday life (the Narnia books and Batman comics were definitely auto-biographical elements), I didn't think the mythology was very well-thought out or ultimately came together. Where I'm guessing most of you saw a clever way of blending science and fantasy, I saw as a too rushed short form for getting unto the better stuff which was the boy's personal upbringing.

    Again, I still really liked it (I mean it's Gaiman and he's one of my favorite authors), but to see so many people think it's the best thing he's every written really shocks me. I know it's somewhat trivial to rank pieces of literature (or really anything) but out of the Gaiman works I've read they would follow as so:

    6. The Ocean at the End of the Lane
    5. Stardust
    4. Anansi Boys
    3. Neverwhere
    2. Good Omens
    1. American Gods
    - Sandman is easily number one if were counting it. (A Game of You being my favorite)

    I would love to hear people's thoughts on what I thought was a rushed, too curt mythology. I would also love to hear people recommend some more Gaiman I haven't read (The Graveyard Book I'm looking at you).

    For me Gaiman excels at world building, developing memorable characters both good and bad, a sharp droll wit, and infusing mythology within a modern world while showing the drastic consequences that modern world poses for those mythological entities. The Ocean at the End of the Lane did most of those well, but for me it didn't have the staying power or creative slight of hand that wows me that I'm so used to by him.

    Anyway love the book club, it's actually inspired me in some ways to create a book club at my college. Keep up the good work and would love to hear a podcast on The Ocean at the End of the Lane in the near future.

  • kbenton

    Salieri2 gets a lot of it by saying that that sort of detailed world building isn't a goal of this book. It's simply not trying to be those, so in that sense, I think it's utterly unlike other Gaiman.

    That exact fact then is probably why so many people find it preferable to his other work. As noted, that "sharp droll wit" and pantheon of characters you find so appealing is precisely what diminishes some of his other work for me. Perhaps it's narcissistic, but I can't see myself in his other work (except, *maybe* Stardust, if only because it hews closest to a traditional Heroes Journey tale), where I could in Ocean.

    And too it's perhaps tonal. This comes up in discussions I have about film as well. There are many movies I simply love because of the tone of them, something that to me encompasses an emotional response that is built far more by the cinematography, lighting and color, sound, and the moods of the characters than the details of the plot or their world. Lost In Translation is perhaps the most pertinent, and one which I've repeatedly heard people refer to as "pointless" or "abstract... nothing really happens". I happen to disagree with that arguement w/r/t the plot also, but even were it true, there's much of value (to me) in the emotional weight of the thing itself.

    So that allusive, emotional quality (as Salieri2 aptly describes it) ends up being far more satisfying than a thorough and mechanically consistent mythology. Not making perfect sense sets an emotional tone that resonates with the other aspects of the story that deal with confusion and misunderstanding, that sense of dislocation we all feel at the cusp between childhood and not.

  • NorthBy39Steps

    I think it being "utterly unlike other Gaiman" is probably what through me off at first, but hearing your take on it's tone and the novel's allusive, emotional quality is definitely helpful in understanding why this particular novel of Gaiman's worked so well for everyone here.

    I disagree with the idea that Gaiman's earlier work didn't have a resonant or consistent tone, because while I do feel like "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" does excel in it's mournful, yearning for childhood, I think his other work also completely nails there respective tones just in a different way (Good Omens is completely absurd and sustains that sharp wit throughout while American Gods is similar to this novel in it's mournful elegiac tone but on a more operatic scale).

    I can see that you definitely have an emotional connection to the novel (as you said in your great write-up that it felt like the narrator could have been you), but for me I happened to like what you deemed Gaiman's "clever clever aura" that left you feeling cold, not only because I genuinely felt he was being clever but more because I felt it fit the story that was being told. His stories are filled with tricksters (like Crawley in "Good Omens" or Mr. Wednesday in "American Gods") and storytellers (like Marquis de Carabas in "Neverwhere" and Mr. Nancy in "Anansi Boys"). These characters are tale spinners and Gaiman uses his "wink -wink" writing to convey that.

    Again, I really liked this novel, and the more I think and read all of your great comments the more I fall in love with it.

  • Salieri2

    I did not see world-building in any part a goal or focus of Ocean. You know how Stardust has a whole pair of worlds full of histories and languages and customs and rules? This ain't that. Ocean's mythology isn't explicit, it's allusive, it's suggestive. The elements of myth that tug at you in this one are powerful because they're not brought to the surface and explained and contextualized--they strike a chord of memory of myths you've heard and read, and awaken whatever emotions you felt about those myths, but they don't quite settle into tidy definitions.

    Take the Hempstocks: they're as much the Maiden, Mother and Crone of neopaganism as they are Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos from Greek mythology, (the Fates who spin, measure and cut the thread of life). But they're not explicitly either trio, and Gaiman's refusal to tie them down lets them resonate a bit and bounce off other cultural traditions we accrete inside our subconscious. They "came across the ocean" from the "old country," which is how people used to talk of the trek from the Old World to the New, and yet they've been in England since the Domesday book--two tropes that don't go together. And the "old country" had either sunk, like Atlantis, or exploded, like a star. These are conflicting, suggestive stories--they don't form a coherent picture and they're not meant to. Everything you know about the Fates, or supernovae, or emigration, is stirred up in the depths and allowed to contribute to the overall feel and smell of these characters, this story, without chaining them into any other story.

    I agree with much of what's been said already so won't repeat it: here's my opinion about what is clearly the most personal work of Gaiman's to date. Look at how lonely this narrator is; so lonely he barely recognizes it, so disconnected from his past, cut off from the isolated joys of his childhood, and empty in his present that he doesn't have any strong relationships: marriage failed, father dead. Lettie literally gave him her heart, and he didn't even remember her, and will forget again. I keep seeing the ends of movies accidentally, like Saving Private Ryan. "Tell me I'm a good man." He doesn't know. I certainly don't know Neil Gaiman himself, it would be too much to claim this is his own fear, but of all the scary things he's written, this narrator's fear is the most heartbreaking. He's afraid he'll fall short. He's afraid he'll forget. He's afraid he's empty. He's afraid he can't love.

  • NorthBy39Steps

    Thanks for the write up and I definitely agree with most of what you said (particularly about this being Gaiman's most personal piece of fiction yet). I hadn't thought about it's mythology as "allusive" like you mentioned, and maybe being so used to Gaiman's incredible world building (particularly in Sandman) that I came across this novel with the wrong expectations.

    There are some scenes in The Ocean at the End of the Lane that I find to be so powerful in both a horrifying (the fathers bath dunk) and deeply saddening (the fathers visit to the Boy when he won't come to dinner) way that whenever it came to Ursula and even some of the Hempstocks story I wasn't as immediately connected as I was with his home life. I know you could make the point that one connects directly to the other, but I would disagree not in that they don't connect but in that one is a lot more engaging than the other.

    Again, I still loved the novel and I know I'll be quoting many of it's lines in the future ("I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were."), but it didn't come together for me as I guess it did for all of you.

    Thanks for the response Salieri2, it's not that I wanted the mythology to be explained, it's that I didn't feel the mythology was very interesting, or at least as interesting as the more personal stuff.

  • bonnie

    I just finished this book and still pondering what I'm going to write for my CBR review, so this will be a short thought: I liked the depiction of childhood. It's a confusing, scary beast, and adults either come off as these benevolent, mythical creatures, or else they're terrifying monsters like Ursula. We tend to lose that sense of wonder when we grow up, and the world becomes a narrower place when we abandon our wild, unharnessed childhoods (see also Anne of Green Gables). Gaiman nails that experience.

  • He really does. I was struck at the end how the Narrator now viewed Old Mrs Hempstock and Ginny. As children we view adults as bigger than life, of possible of all sorts of comfort and protection. As adults, we see people as fragile and damaged.

  • raeraefred

    Maiden, Mother, and Crone didn't jump out at me right away, either, but then it did and I thought, "Well, duh." I've read practically everything Gaiman's ever written, and there was a finesse to this writing moreso than some of his others. Parts of Ocean reminded me of Vonnegut, strangely enough.

  • Derek

    Always am a fan of Gaiman. I devoured 'American Gods' in a span of few days (which is exceptionally unusual for me cause I'm heck of a slow reader) cause it's freakishly addictive, loved the characters and I'm a sucker when it comes to ingraining mythology into story-telling which is, really, a Gaiman-esque thing. I'm currently going through Sandman for the first time in my life (I know.) and now I'm in the middle of 'Brief Lives' arc and it's fantastic. Anyway, short two-cent about 'Ocean'; it's great, beautifully-written and the characters, as always, are amazing. Gonna re-read it at some point of my life, if I'm not busy traversing through dream-land with Morpheus by then.

    And cheers to Pajiba for doing this; loved the opinions and the healthy discussions that followed and I heart that header logo. Oh and I would love to see this in either Google Hangout format or better yet, podcast the hell out of it!

  • Allow me to compliment your sweet fucking header, 'Jiba graphic artist, whoever you may be.

  • MontroseMama

    Let me start that I came to this book never having read Gaiman and NOT being a fan of fantasy. So I found it interesting that he wrote it for a wife who did not care for fantasy. Then I find out he wrote Coraline. That movie scared the bejeebers out of my son, the idea of other "bad" mama. So I don't think my impression of the book is as deep as everyone else.

    First of all, I did love it. But I came away with a story of a boy creating an amazing story to explain and insulate himself from an absent and indifferent mother, and abusive and filandering father and the death of a beloved childhood friend. The man forgets the story until he comes back to the childhood home.

    But I am not schooled in the themes of fantasy so all this somewhat new to me. I will have more to contribute if we get to different genres. We will get to different genres right? The Hobbit?

  • fracas

    I never would have thought to read it as a realistic story, rather than fantasy/horror. But it's really cool that it works on that level. If I reread it in the future, I'll keep that in mind.

  • J4Sho

    Ok. You stole almost everything I wanted to say!

    I do love fantasy (but never read Gaiman either) and I loved this book. I actually finished the last page and turned back to the beginning and started over again.

    The thing that kept jumping out at me through the whole story was what an avid reader this kid was and how well he loved and understood the power of a good story. I could totally see him using his vast imagination to find a way to deal with the strange behaviors of the adults around him.

    I also wondered if the Hempsteads even existed or were metaphors (I completely missed the maiden mother crone thing) for aspects of his own maturity maybe. I find it an especially interesting concept if the girl represents childhood since she had to die.

  • I was intrigued when at the very end Old Mrs Hempstock told our Narrator that there had only ever been one of her. Could this mean that he imagined the other two, the mother and the maiden, as a way to completely understand the kindly lady down the lane? Probably not, but food for thought.

  • MontroseMama

    I am glad to see I was not alone in a sea of folks who "got" all the fantasy stuff. It was a lovely book and I am going to dig into more Gaiman even though he would not be my typical read. The Hobbit is going to be tough going for me. But I am going to give it a go. But give us realists a break on the next book selection.

  • paddydog

    Apologies for being late to the party: work did not cooperate today.

    1. Here's the thing, I read this immediately after reading "Toast", Nigel Slater's memoir of his widowed father falling for a woman who he (Nigel) saw through his little boy's eyes as an evil temptress who lived to torture Nigel and who ultimately killed his father (again, the boy's version of events). And it struck me so heavily, that this same story was being played out with Ursula: that's exactly how children see these events unfolding around them. There are really interesting parallels between one book, a reality-based memoir and the other a fantasy.

    2. I loved the fact that the evil was fabric anthropomorphized in a sense. The danger that lurks in ordinary objects when we are subject to seeing them differently. It reminded me of studies on how cows or horses will be so spooked by a flapping piece of plastic on a fence that they will refuse to go through a gate anywhere near it. It's a whole thing about our more fundamental instincts feeling that something is awry.
    Don't want to be TL:DR so will stop there.

  • fracas

    Toast comes up in this story too. The Boy's father always burns it, and then lies about liking it burnt. Yeah...

  • kbenton

    For starters, categorically my favorite Gaiman book, in large part for exactly the reasons stated above. His other work tends to have just that sort of wink-wink, clever-clever aura hanging about, and it's left me somewhat cold every time. I come back for the stories, but am irked by the telling, I suppose. None of that here.

    It's also a book that resonates powerfully. I know I'm not the only one who felt so, but from page 1 I felt he could have been writing about me, both as man and child. There's a not insignificant sense that whatever his instigating force, this book was a gift also to those of us who spent our weekends alone with a book rather than running about, who constantly imagined being surrounded by other worlds, invisible to everyone else. Lonely, but never far from the warm embrace of a good story.

    As to the larger themes, I agree with most of what's been said already, but I haven't seen much discussion of Ursula, so I'll chime in on her. To me, among other things, she represents an underlying human greed of childhood. That possessive desire to be fulfilled externally. We even often characterize that attitude as childish... it's necessary for children, of course, but so we contemplate adulthood (or maturity at least) as, in part, coming to the understanding that we have to serve others. Ursula's conception of giving people what they want is informed by the things they want but suppress acting on because doing so would harm others.

    In that sense then, I think the eventual triumph over Ursula represents the defeat of that selfish instinct. And of course, it's only possible through a devastating act of mature self-sacrifice. It is in this way, at least as much as through the re-conceptualization of Parent-as-Human-Being, that the Boy's growing up is indicated. Or so I see it.

  • MauraFoley

    I really like your points about Ursula showing a dark side of trying to please everyone. A great embodiment of how people pleasing is THE WORST. Unless you really think about your actions, you will hurt others. We (adults) do a lot more self censorship and regulation than we think, because we aren't all walking around like Urusula. I'm gonna be thinking about that a lot the next couple days, thanks for bringing it up.

  • bastich

    Why am I suddenly hungry for calamari?

  • I think that the logo looks like an old English pub sign, which makes me love it even more. We will of course have to brew our own beer, and it will be the darkest of ales and called the Ink You Can Drink.

  • fracas

    I was thinking that this club needed beer. This does already exist though (and it's pretty tasty)-

  • fracas

    It didn't bother me that we didn't learn the narrator's name. (I am Jack's heart. I get worms, I kill Jack.) I thought it was interesting that hardly anyone in the book had a name, any of the humans anyway. The mother, the father, the sister, his children, whoever died, the opal miner. Nobody got a name. Except for the little farm girl he kissed. She got a name. She might have been the only one.

  • Names are powerful things, and it's not the first time Gaiman has played the card of things that can't be remembered (recall the passenger in American Gods who no one could remember having seen as soon as they turn away).

    On another level too, what I hadn't considered before is that the book is in the first person yet it is being told be a narrator who will not remember it as soon as he is done telling it. There's something wonderful about that, because it draws the question: if the narrator forgets, then who is he telling the story to?

  • himself, so he can remember. Until he forgets. :)

  • Tinkerville

    For me, this book came at a particularly apt time since I just lost my childhood home and I recently visited it for the last time. I was amazed at how perfectly Gaiman captured the feeling of visiting a place that can hold so much power depending on the memories that you have of it, as well as the memories that are reshaped as we grow older and we lose the kind of brave innocence that we had as kids despite how desperately we try to cling to it.

    "I think the key to the entire book is that beautiful metaphor about how adulthood is a mask, how everyone really is still just the same child inside. But when we wear that mask, most of us forget that it’s a mask. And our protagonist can only remember being the Boy when he takes off the mask of being the Man."

    This, exactly this, is what I took away from it. And when I realized that's where Gaiman was going with it, it felt like an emotional bulldozer had run straight into me for the above mentioned reasons.

    For some reason when he was visiting the Hempstocks I was constantly reminded of Miyazaki's movies. I don't know if anyone else felt that way. I think it was the way the ages were represented, how they battled ancient evil through their own personal ways of using magic, and the way something as simple as a hot meal could make all the difference. It struck me as similar to the way that Miyazaki can bring so much beauty and significance to simple things.

  • kbenton

    Oh, absolutely shades of Miyazaki for me as well. I think that's a lot to do with what Joanna and SLW call "grounded" magic. It's taking the very real magic of the simple or mundane and amplifying it to epic levels. I loved that.

  • jstnbsn

    Anyone else feel like Ursula was very similar to the Other Mother in Coraline?

  • One thing that struck me as interesting was how Ursula was very much a child herself. A destructive, malicious, in over her head child, but still a child nonetheless. One without parents who was trying to be an adult, to swim in waters she had no capacity for. The Hempstocks' first inclination was to try to take care of her, not to defeat her.

  • Addicct

    Yes! I think this echoes the theme which you touched on in an earlier comment-the horror of an adult who has the mentality of a child. What is terrifying, to me, is how much power and control the so called 'adult' (Ursula) wielded over the Boy and the helpless feeling it gave him (and me).

  • kbenton

    Precisely! It's that unrestrained Me, Me, Me-ness dressed in adult (by human standards) clothes.

  • Wednesday

    Yes, she did have a lot of the same qualities, of being a terrifying, selfish, but completely feminine powerful being.

  • fracas

    Yes, definitely. I wonder if that's a kind of archetype, like the fairy tale wicked stepmother. The parent who's supposed to take care of you, but who's actually working against you. And it's an authority figure that you're not allowed to defy even when you know they're trying to hurt you.

  • fracas

    Was anyone else reminded of Stephen King's It when reading this? There are a lot of parallels. Man returns to his home town and remembers the childhood that he's magically forgotten. As a child he had to confront a supernatural corrupting shapeshifter. The boy briefly connects to a universal consciousness. There were more things, but now I'm forgetting them.

    I'm not saying it was a rip-off or derivative or anything. They're both great stories in their own rights. That was just something that occurred to me. Then I thought it was a funny coincidence that Gaiman thanks King in the acknowledgements for something altogether different and wonderful.

  • axis2clusterB

    Yes. Also, Summer of Night by Dan Simmons.

  • fracas

    Do we really know that he came back for his father's funeral? That makes sense for the story, but I don't think it's ever said whose funeral he's going to.

  • RyanStrange

    I loved this book. I thought it was just tremendous. I would, however,
    like to rewrite the ending. It was so sad. As I was reading the end
    and I was trying to will the story to have Lettie pop out of her 'ocean'
    at some point. And I also thought it was sad that they took the
    memories from him when he was a child and again as an adult. The
    knowledge of the experiences that he went through as a child may have
    impacted him in a positive way. Knowing that Lettie more or less
    sacrificed herself for his life. But anyway, great book. My first Neil Gaiman book. I will for sure be checking out some of his other work.

  • kbenton

    The desire is understandable, but robs it, I think, of something crucial, which is that even in spite of the power of our childhood experiences, and even give the occasional powerful emotional reminder of them here and there as we grow older, most of us lose access to them. Time, distance and the various obligations of adult life tend to throw a blanket over the magic we feel. We ought to fight that, we know we ought, and many of us try very hard to (in part by reading books like this one), but in the end fail often, and live a somewhat benighted version of ourselves.

    That is sad, because it reflects a sad truth about ourselves. Softening the end would, I think, destroy the larger metaphor.

  • See, it has to be sad, because childhood has to end. Not to go all Dante "life is a series of down endings" but childhood is valuable because it ends, because we set it aside and it only lives on in memory. So to a degree, a novel chiefly about childhood has to have a sad ending if it is going to be honest, because that joy is felt only through the clouded glass of years.

    But if we don't leave it behind it destroys the value of it. Innocence gives way to maturity, which is tragic. But innocence that never gives way to maturity is horror. It's just emotional stasis.

    It's tragic that we commit the crimes that expel us from the Garden, but how much more terrible would it be if we never left, never learned, never knew.

  • Yossarian

    2. The extraordinary nature of ordinary objects. Think about the way in which Gaiman infuses ordinary objects (flapping canvas, duck ponds, coins, a good, hot meal) with extraordinary purpose. Is this a comment on the idea that there’s magic everywhere if you look close enough? In this world, even the overtly magical things have their roots in science (Mrs. Hempstock and her electron decay; dark matter and string theory). By grounding the mythos in modern scientific understanding of the natural world and filling in the scientific gaps with mythology, Gaiman blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Does that make the story feel more real? More possible?

    I love this trope. It's one of my favorite things to encounter in literature. Even in bloated series like The Dark Tower but especially in the good hands of a Pratchett or a Gaiman (or both). When fantasy literature builds on things we know about the world (space, the cosmos, subatomic particles, entropy, time dilation, quantum theory, brain chemistry) and incorporates the known science with fantasy storytelling I'm hooked. I feel like a kid again. I think that's where magic and wonder live, at the edges of our understanding, in mind-bending concepts of infinity and hidden worlds that exist on scales massively bigger (or, massively smaller) than where we are bound.

    And of course it works today just like it always has. Religious myths and fairy tales and fables explained the unknown to past civilizations. But as we keep expanding the frontier of science we need to update our myths. We need science fiction and fantasy stories that build on what we know about psychology and growing up and incorporate what we know about physics and the natural world, and then strike out into the unknown to weave a fantasy that does feel real, or possible. That feels True, even if not literally true.

    Our old myths and legends are aging out. Their quaint limitations are diluting their power. We read them more as curiosities for what they tell us about past societies than for what they tell us about ourselves. That's why books like this are so important. Because we still need stories that serve the purpose of ancient myths and fairy tales. That give us a personal relationship with magic and wonder. That's what this book does, because it feels true, and it feels possible.

  • Blunders


    I know, we are the worst people, it's true. But in one of my classes we've been reading A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, in which Taylor tries to identify how in Western society we made it possible for religious belief and unbelief to exist side-by-side as options, when previously unbelief was unthinkable. It's an enormous and fantastically boring book, but one of the things Taylor discusses is the rise of the natural/supernatural divide. He points out that until the 17th or maybe 18th century, that distinction would have made no sense to anyone living in Europe. There were no supernatural phenomena separate from natural phenomena, instead there was just the world as a whole.

    Anyway, Taylor's discussion of the separation of natural and supernatural crystallized something for me that had been hovering in the back of my mind every time I read Gaiman: the most defining characteristic of Gaiman's stories is how they break down that divide so effectively. They take us back to a time that is still half-remembered in our collective unconscious, a time when the natural and the supernatural bled together so completely that they were inseparable. A big part of how he does it is by taking ordinary mundane things and convincing us that there is something else "behind" them. Or else something that is a part of them that can only be glimpsed, but rarely seen head-on.

  • THIS. I think this is why I love both Neverwhere and The Ocean at the End of the Lane so much. They each explore the concept that the fantastical is just outside our reach and just outside our memories. No one remembers seeing Door, and our Narrator re-forgets the truth of the Hempstocks when he leaves each time. This constant and habitual forgetting of the larger narrative speaks to e.

  • Yossarian

    I can't remember if I knew that bit of trivia about the story being written for his wife as an appeal to a non-fan but it certainly explains why I've been recommending this book to so many people as the right place to jump in to Gaiman.

    It's just so elegant in the simple, straightforward storytelling (as you guys point out) but also the depth of fantasy and myth and all the rich meaning conveyed just below the surface of the story. The universal truths that resonate (as you guys also point out). It's a perfect little novel.

  • Robert

    Would love to hear/see this in a live Google Hangout format...

  • JoannaRobinson

    That's one of the options we're considering IF there's enough discussion and interest here. SO DISCUSS AWAY!

  • MauraFoley

    One thing I really liked was the use of hot and cold to show comfort/security. As the Ursula problem escalates at home, Boy is more often cold, wet or uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with not being able to keep the light on, the intense chill of the water during the drowning scene, hunger when he is afraid to eat Ursula's food. Contrast that with Hempstock farm, and everything about the place seems impossibly wonderful by comparison, a foundation for what a proper, loving childhood needs. Adults who treat you with respect and also care about your feelings, warm, robust food, warm beds. The constant discussion of food, the temperature, even the feel of fabrics against the skin served the story very well in groundding the supernatural happenings not only in physical reality, but emotional reality as well.

  • JoannaRobinson

    I love that idea. I hadn't thought about it. But it's not that the Boy is forced to grow up and be the Man at home and allowed to stay a child at the Hempstocks. Because the Hempstocks empower him. They have him go out and confront the beasties and fight the battles. So maybe it's an idea about the RIGHT way to enter adulthood. Plunged (as it were) or nurtured?

  • MauraFoley

    Yes, it's almost as if the boy becomes a man not despite the Hempstocks nuturing childhood fostering care, it's because of that. I entered adulthood quite easily, as compared to my peers, because I am always a plane ride away from my own Hempstock farm. I leave the nest because it will be there when I return.

  • Loved it. But then again, I get drawn into Gaiman's stuff way too easily.

  • Wednesday

    I absolutely saw the Maiden, Mother, Crone stuff from just after where it was introduced, at the suicide-car point. But I'm always aware of how Gaiman reaches into mythology to tap into the universal elements of storytelling. Everything he's written uses that, from Sandman (oh yes, absolutely in Sandman) to today.

    I still feel the authorial voice was slightly detached from his protagonist, although more personal than some of his other stories. So far I think Coraline has greatest sense of inhabiting his character. In this case, there was a strong feeling of nostalgia, of someone relating a story that he couldn't quite believe from events that happened in his childhood. Which makes sense, given the ending of the story.

    The scariest moment to me was Ursula's seduction of his father, even more so than the almost-drowning. Because at that point, we knew the Boy's own family was irretrievably gone as allies and he had to fear them as much as Ursula.

    My daughter's not quite finished reading this yet, but I'm interested in knowing what a teenager thinks is the scariest moment. When we both read Coraline, it was like we read two different books. What was terrifying to a parent was utterly different from the parts that scared a child.

  • MauraFoley

    And what a horrible way to be introduced to sexuality, through seeing this otherworld monster screw your dad. It made me very, very sad. It may not be the most viscerally scary moment of the novel, but I agree that it really unmoored the protagonist emotionally, support is gone!

  • Rob


    thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you

  • MauraFoley

    I'll come back for a more thoughtful reply to the commentary, but I needed to pop down here before finishing for this:

    "Why in the world would a renowned fantasy author marry someone who professes to not like the genre?"


  • bastich

    In the world in my imagination (aka "Awesomotania"), Neil Gaiman had married Rhianna Pratchett, and they recently birthed their first child (aka "The Postmodern Fantasy Messiah").

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