|photo by Amy|
I'm going to start this post with a caveat so I don't engender angry comments. I know a lot of people love everything Neil Gaiman writes. The Ocean at the End of the Lane was my first adult Gaiman novel. The caveat to this review is this: while I seem to be reading a lot more than usual recently, I don't seem to be able to love anything I read. In addition to the annoying weather, (it's been ridiculously hot and humid here in the South), one personal irritation after another keeps piling up, so maybe that's why I didn't love The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or any other book I've read recently.
When I first started the book, I thought I was going to love it, but it just never seemed to develop fully enough for me. It felt more like a short story (or maybe a JF book), and I've never been a fan of short stories. Too many things felt undeveloped or incomplete, like an outline, rather than a finished work. I do often seem to feel this way when reading Science Fiction, so it could just be the genre for me. One thing I do love about science fiction authors is their penchant for embracing vast philosophical questions like why we are here; where we are for that matter; who we are; and what happens to us after death. I loved the idea introduced when the narrator wants to stay in the ocean of all knowledge and is told that if he does, he will eventually spread out into points of everything and become nothing. That's a fascinating interpretation of what happens to us after death, I think. Something about this idea reminds me of the end of Arthur C Clark's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another interesting idea touched on in this part of the story is the fallacy of self-knowledge. When our narrator finds himself in the ocean of all knowledge, he realizes that while he may be able to know and see everything, the one thing he cannot know or see is himself, his true image. I like the idea that the only true unknowable to us is ourselves. No one can truly, objectively see himself.
One concept in the book that spoke personally to me was when the narrator says, "…and I would imagine that I was in my boat on the ocean and that it was swaying with the swell of the sea. I did not imagine that I was a pirate, or that I was going anywhere. I was just on my boat." Often when I can't sleep because my life feels overwhelming to me, I will imagine myself on a train to lull myself to sleep. This is a very specific fantasy: I am in a sleeping berth beside a window on an overnight train in Russia, crossing a snowy steppe with a view of the Ural Mountains in the background across the moonlit plain. I have no idea where any of that comes from, as I have never been to Russia, nor have I been in a sleeping berth on an overnight train. Reincarnation, maybe? Regardless, it calms me and puts me to sleep every time. And it calms me to know that at least one other person on the planet thinks this way too, even if it is a British author I will never meet. Maybe that, too, is the power of art, literary or otherwise; it helps us feel less alone in the world of our thoughts.
Another point of synchronicity to me occurred when Ginnie Hempstock says of Ursula Monkton, (who is the most insidious kind of evil, like Doroles Umbridge in Harry Potter -- the type masquerading as perfectly good): "I don't hate her. She does what she does, according to her nature." This touches on a conversation I've had recently and often with a friend about people who hurt others with their neglect or selfishness or dishonesty. Certainly, some people are natured to be selfish and dishonest and neglectful, and certainly they will hurt those around them, and those of us who are not natured to be that way would do well to accept the truth of who these people are and move on (and avoid them like the plague), but does that make it acceptable for people to be this way? To have this kind of Zen attitude about these people is almost akin to saying it is acceptable for them to be thus. I don't know exactly what I think of this issue, but I did find it interesting to run into it in this book, when I've been discussing it so much recently for personal reasons.
Interesting that a novel I didn't love provoked such an outpouring of words from me. I think this has been one of my longest blog post. I did find the book to be well-written, engaging, and entertaining, and Gaiman did a great job with the narrator's voice, which I found to be very convincingly child-like and natural. I just wish the ideas and plot points had been more fully developed and explored. Had Gaiman finished this novel, it could have been fantastic.
Now I'm off to Barcelona to finish the Carlos Ruiz Zafon Shadow of the Wind series.