There's a thing I do, when people ask me which Neil Gaiman book they should read first. I start running through the catalogue in my head. If I don't know them at all, I recommend one of the short story collections, Smoke and Mirrors, or Fragile Things. I talk about how Neverwhere has some of my favorite characters and a huge heart, but American Gods is more technically impressive. The Graveyard Book is flat out lovely, but not everyone can get past the scary opening. Stardust for the people who need the magic but can't handle the scary bits. And, well, Sandman is this great and astounding thing, but there are people who will not read graphic novels.
Not that it's a problem, to have a wide and varied list of works to recommend, but with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil has written his best book yet, one I'll happily recommend to everyone.
[Much in the way that Aslan is not a tame sort of lion, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a safe sort of book. But this is a safe sort of review. No spoilers.]
Ocean is being marketed as a book for adults, but it has a child protagonist. And one of the things the book is very much about is the power of childhood. I don't mean that in the twee, fetishization of ignorance and innocence way that means drawing a sepia-toned veil over the difficult bits. I mean that Ocean engages with the idea that being a child is a different sort of thing - you see the world differently than your parents do. Perhaps for the first time you are having a world outside of that of your parents, with things you do that they don't know about, and that there is a power in that. Time moves differently - it stretches and condensces around events. The barrier between what actually happened and what you imagined, or what could have happened, becomes thin. Permeable. Things can pass between. In Ocean, what passes between is the mythic, the numinous, and as you might guess, things like that are not always nice.
There are difficult bits in Ocean, and there is no veil drawn over them. They are faced head on, by the child at the heart of the story who wants to see, and wants to know, who asks the questions when an adult might turn away because it is easier not to look.
It can be a heartless, monstrous thing to be a child. It can be a heartless, monstrous thing to be an adult, as well, and Ocean asks us to look at both, to live in the spaces between and on the margins, and think about those different kinds of monsters, the ones we live with, and the ones we make. It is an acknowledgement that as much as childhood is a kind of power, it is not an absolute one, and adulthood is a kind of tyranny. Sometimes it is a benevolent one. Other times, it is not.
The other tyranny at play is that of memory. Ocean opens with the child narrator as an adult, and as the story goes on, it becomes clear that he has misremembered some key things that happened to him as a child, key things associated with the three Hempstock women, who live at the end of the lane, one of whom, Lettie, was his best friend when he was a child. Memory shifts and changes. Story, so Ocean tells us, is true. Even when it seems impossible. It's in the impossible where we discover who we really are.
When I was a child, I lived in stories. Stories I told myself, or stories other people had written. It was the best sort of magic, and in some ways truer than the things that actually happened. I think that, as adults, it becomes harder for us to find stories that we can live in. Some of us keep looking for that magic. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane - a book I first read a year ago, and that I have lived in since - Neil Gaiman has found it.