Right. At the moment I am re-reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Mr Neil “Pretention is genuinely my middle name; check my gold filigree birth certificate” Gaiman. Just joking. It’s carved into a narwhal horn.
In all seriousness, I do like a lot of stuff Gaiman writes: Stardust, Neverwhere, Anansi Boys and one of the best New Who episodes, The Doctor’s Wife. No disputing, when he’s on form he’s pretty good. My main issue with him is the massive fuss over American Gods which is overlong and the tangent sections are way more fun than the main story.
Anyway, Ocean. I mentioned on the Fantasy Faction forums that as a “child story for adults”, I prefer the superb The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. Mind you, I’ve read that more often. They have some similarities: a young boy obsessed with books, a trickster, a quest to save a family member from doom, and some personal growth along the way.
TBOLT is a little darker, in true fairy tale style. I think it is perhaps a little unfair as Connolly adapts a lot of existing stories (the stories from the books on David’s shelf) and weaves them through the narrative whereas Gaiman’s tale follows the structure but with completely his own characters. Perhaps that familiarity is what I prefer about TBOLT, or perhaps it’s the descent into almost the unheimlich (showing off my university education there, folks) that I like about it. The unheimlich, or uncanny, is something familiar that is twisted into the unfamiliar, or something that should be safe that is dangerous, or something that at a glance looks normal but on closer inspection isn’t. The uncanny is a lot of things: overly realistic dolls, or living dolls (Chucky is a good example); mirror worlds; false eyes that are actually real eyes… things that unsettle without us quite knowing why. When David is on his journey, he meets the real Snow White and her Socialist Comrade dwarves, Red Riding Hood’s wolfman, flowers with the faces of children at their centres, and animal-child hybrid creatures among other things.
Ocean stays in the real world and sticks with more conventional surreality, and magic hidden in our own world. The Hempstock’s farm is the centre, where every meal is the best ever, and chores possibly do themselves. Lettie, Mrs H and Old Mrs H seem perfectly at home with a foot in each camp and their practicality makes a lot of the weird action seem normal. This is good, because to them of course it is normal, but bad because it makes the story a little less fraught and a little more child-safe despite being for adults.
TBOLT is for adults or mature teens. Connolly sinks his teeth into the macabre and doesn’t let go. He is writing for adults and he knows it. There is a seediness and a sleaziness –a roiling underbelly of loathing and peevishness – that I really like. It is unsanitised. David is a child moving through an adult world. The world was created by someone else and he is reacting to it; there are things he doesn’t understand because is not old enough but they are seen and described nonetheless. The narrator of Ocean is in his own world and perhaps it’s the first-person POV but there is an innocence to his description that I just can’t warm to. I suppose that says more about me.
I do like Ocean, and I am re-reading it to see if I missed anything the first time round. I like Ursula Monkton and her development. She is my favourite thing, I think. The Brollachan-style first appearance, the sweet exterior (I can almost smell her makeup), the slyness and the pride… once again proving that Gaiman really can write – if only the whole book was as strong.
Mentioning the Brollachan, Ocean compare quite nicely with Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath where children combat evil magic in our own world. They are children’s books with a simpleness perhaps borne of its time of publishing, but there is a mature feel to Gomrath especially that keeps the interest as an adult reader. Maybe sixties children were just more gung-ho. Gomrath wins on the Wild Hunt alone, to be honest.
I know I will continue to read and re-read Garner’s two Alderley Edge books, but Ocean just doesn’t grab me. I’m really trying to give it a fair go. Perhaps it’s because the protagonist of Ocean is really quite young. He has a babyishness that colours his view of the world a little too much. He’s, what, seven going on eight? David in TBOLT is eleven or twelve (and more on a level with Lettie Hempstock) as are Colin and Susan in Garner’s books. Maybe that’s what I don’t like. He’s not practical enough.
Fairy stories are all about really nasty things happening to children. The relish is in either snotty brats getting a hideous comeuppance, or in the children overcoming the villain by being smarter or more cunning (often having been underestimated by adults). Ocean sort of… aims for that but just falls short. It’s too stark and clean. It’s just not twisted enough.