I have been inhaling books lately. It has given me less time to write, but I have definitely felt inspired and productive when I work on my outline. Today, I finished Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was a quick read. Friends who have read this novel said that it touched them with sadness and even made them cry. I found that it did not make me cry. I also don’t know that it made me sad. It was, however, touching and excellently written.
I have devoted particular attention to the craft of the novels that I read lately. For instance, I recently wrote a post about Terry Brook’s Magic Kingdom for Sale… Sold! where I discussed the fact that one of the characters seemed to serve as a cabbagehead at times. On the other hand, in Ocean, Neil Gaiman did an excellent job of weaving the complex story elements into the narrative without long explanatory information dumps. That said, there was a lot left unsaid and definitely elements of the novel that I didn’t feel I understood fully and which probably merit another read through. I believe part of this feeling comes from the fact that the novel is recounted from the perspective of a seven year old boy (or his memories at the age of seven). In that sense, where there is an otherworldly element that is not fully explained or understood by the perspective character (who remains unnamed through the whole novel), such lack of clarity would make sense because of the age and sophistication of the narrator. However, I get the impression that even if the narrator was older, Mr. Gaiman would still have left a lot about his world unstated. None of the Hempstock women seem to have the time or patience for long-winded explanations.
Still, even with a relatively powerless narrator, Mr. Gaiman still manages to give his protagonist the ability to make choices that clearly affect those around him. He may be young and unknowledgeable about his surroundings, but he still exercises his freewill and acts with consequences, even when the forces he is acting against are ancient and supernatural. I also appreciate the treatment of memory in this novel. As part of the story the Hempstock women place a glamour on the protagonist so that he does not remember any of the happenings. When he is drawn to the farm to visit the pond, however, he recalls the entire story for a brief time, and the implication is that he feeds Lettie’s need to know that her sacrifice was worth it. And then, just as quickly as he remembers, he forgets again and continues on with his life. I think this is the portion of the tale that makes people sad. The idea that our sacrifices can be so quickly forgotten is a sad one, but I think it is a natural mechanism for us all. As we move through life, the pain dulls with the passage of time and the acquisition of perspective. Old Mrs. Hempstock makes a point of stating to the protagonist that if you got a bunch of people together, they would all remember things differently, and that is absolutely true. Memory is subjective, malleable and prone to corruption.
I’m still not quite sure what the themes of Ocean were, but it was very thought-provoking, and the kind of novel that makes you wish you could sit down with the author afterwards and pick his brain (even though he is probably terribly sick of discussing it). I borrowed it from my library’s digital collection to read, but it is one that I will have to pick up for my permanent collection.
About the Photograph: This photograph was taken at Papakolea Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii in August, 2009. The beach is a green sand beach where the sand particles are eroded peridot. It is extremely hard to reach.