I have a t-shirt that says "Authors are my rock stars". It features a jaunty picture of Edgar Allen Poe wearing John Lennon-style sunglasses. And aside from the clever mash-up of depressive, alcoholic 19th century author and free-loving 20th century musician, the message on the shirt is true for me, and I bet is true for many of you. Sure, it would be cool to meet some of my favorite rock stars (John Bon Jovi comes to mind!), but if you really want to get me excited, tell me I am going to meet one of my favorite authors.
When I learned I would be meeting him, I quickly realized that it would be in my best interest to read his latest two books prior to the wedding. Because clearly we would become fast friends and spend the entire evening talking about his amazing work. (Spoiler alert: this did not, in fact, come to pass. I met him, congratulated him on his recent book awards, and then spent the rest of the evening too nervous and awkward to actually try to have a conversation with the man. And you'll have to take my word for it that any of this actually happened-I was also too nervous and awkward to ask for a photo.) Mr. Gaiman had two books come out recently. One, a children's book called Fortunately, the Milk, is still in my to-be-read stack. But the other, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I picked up immediately after getting the wedding invitation.
First, let me say that given the pretty short length and the age of the main character of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I assumed it was another children's book. Good thing I actually read it before I handed it out to any of the children at my school. It may be short, and be mostly about children, but it is very definitely not for the under 12 crowd. The story is told in flashback. The narrator is a man returning to his childhood home for a funeral. While there, he revisits places he knew as a child. He find himself drawn to the farm at the end of the road, and to the pond that stands behind the neat farmhouse. All those years ago, he met a girl named Lettie Hempstock and her remarkable family there, and as he gazes at the pond (which Lettie called an ocean), memories of the most terrifying time of his life come flooding back. When a man committed suicide in his family's car, it created a soft spot in our world that allowed something horrible to come through, something that almost destroyed his family, and could have destroyed the world as we know it. It is up to Lettie and her family to put things right again.
The suicide was the first thing that clued me into the fact that perhaps I had misjudged the intended audience for the book. The fact that the evil thing that comes through the hole in the world seduced his father in the guise of an attractive nanny made it official. But despite some very adult events, the book does read childlike. Gaiman was able to capture what happened in a way that we understand it as a child might understand it, and it reminded me of my own childhood fears-fears about monsters and losing my parents. Those seem to be fairly universal childhood fears, and Gaiman uses them expertly to create a sense of menace, even though much of the book is not, in fact, violent. And like the boy in the story, we are left wondering about the nature of Lettie and her family as much as we are about this monster and where it came from. There is basically no back story for those characters in the book, at least not directly stated. You can infer a few things from the abilities of the characters and the way they describe "crossing the ocean", but there is no grand explanation. In the end it didn't matter. The story has an emotional impact and a creepiness factor that are independent of the mythology of the supernatural characters involved.
I enjoyed The Ocean at the End of the Lane differently than I enjoyed some of his other books. It's doesn't have the intricate plotlines of American Gods or Anansi's Boys, and I guess it comes the closest to Coraline in terms of its overall mood. But it is truly a story like I have never read before, which I think speaks volumes about Gaiman's talent as a storyteller. Maybe our paths will cross again someday, and I will overcome my awkwardness enough to have that conversation about his art. But until then, I'll make do with his always entertaining and thought-provoking books.
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