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Book Review: 'The Ocean At The End Of The Lane'

Michael Chasin |
June 22, 2013 | 1:38 p.m. PDT

Contributor

"I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children stories. They were better than that. They just were."
"I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children stories. They were better than that. They just were."
Let's begin with a story.

I must have been fifteen when I got into comics. I wasn't interested in the monthly superhero adventures—at the time I had no idea how to keep track of all that intricate myth-making—but rather the graphic masterpieces that stood as the best their medium had to offer. I figured I could never hope to read all of the great novels. But all of the great graphic novels? That was doable.

As anyone starting out on the same path will attest, two recommendations quickly become overbearing in their ubiquity: You have to read 'Watchmen.' And you have to read 'Sandman.'

The former was perfect. A work so meticulously crafted and brilliantly realized that its existence still awes me some five years later.

But it was the latter that changed my life. Over seventy-five issues, Neil Gaiman told the story of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, and of his siblings, of gods and humans and all that lies between, of life and death and choice and change and story. Yes, above all it was a story about stories and what they can do, why they matter. I always cared about fiction more than anything else. With 'Sandman,' Neil Gaiman made me understand why, and why that was ok.

From there, I became devoted. I've read and reread Neil Gaiman's work, watched the adaptations, poured over interviews, recommended him on an almost daily basis, and met him, once (while I was dressed head-to-toe in black, my hair in disarray, in a decent enough imitation of his iconic look that his rockstar wife remembered me as her doppelhusband a few months later. It was Halloween and I couldn't resist).

I don't love everything that he's written, but in Neil I see a near-perfect embodiment of the ideals and pursuits towards which I hope to dedicate my life. He is storytelling incarnate, the closest thing we have to the Dream King he imagined almost twenty-five years ago, and for that I couldn't love him more.

Yet as hyperbolic as my praise may be, I'm forced to admit that I'm hardly unique. Neil Gaiman has had fans who've cared this much since before I was born. Fans the world over name their children after his characters, tattoo his words on their skin, take strength and meaning from his stories. I'm a big fan, but I could never claim myself as the biggest.

It just kind of feels like it sometimes.

So you can imagine my excitement upon receiving a signed copy of his new novel in the mail. 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' is the first book "for adults" that Neil has written since I discovered him, so approaching it was a new experience. I rearranged my workweek, cleared an afternoon, found a quiet spot outside a cafe, and read it all in one sitting.

Neil has claimed this might be the best thing he's ever written, and as I sat in silence for several minutes after turning the final page, I decided there's a good chance I agree. It is at least his most personal effort. In the deceptively slim space between the covers he crafts a tale so intimate in scope yet so vast in its implications that it manages to distill themes he's been exploring his entire career to their essence.

It's a story full of fear and beauty and magic and courage, love and loss and memory and wonder. It's about the things we lose as we grow old and the things we take with us forever. It's made of heartache and canvas and saltwater.

It is so well told, so good and necessary, so completely itself that there's nothing quite like it.

It calls to mind his other work, yes, and for a stretch in the middle I really did think I might have been reading a darker, truer 'Coraline.' But it becomes so much more than that by the end, as everything falls into place.

And I haven't said what actually happens in it. Here: A man sits by a duck pond and remembers frightening, wondrous things that happened to him as a boy. He does this because there are times when we need to remember. When things are hard, lonely, scary, painful. We stop and remember what we've been through, and what we've been given, and what we can be.

Usually, that helps. And then we go on and we keep living.

'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' can be read at those times, or at any time, because it has a way of transporting the reader to that place. It's for anyone who reads, who can lose themselves, and I am so glad for it.

I almost wish I had found it when I was older, because it depends very much on the divide between childhood and adulthood, and its depth will likely grow more pronounced as that gulf widens.

But read it, no matter who you are. Yes, I assumed I was almost certainly going to recommend as much going in.

Even then, it might be better than I expected. It made me laugh and cry and marvel at its simple perfection. I can see myself rereading it every now and again for decades to come, sharing it with whoever will listen.

At first glance it might seem too slight to call a masterpiece. The spine might convince you that you'll only be wetting your feet. Make no mistake, 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' is anything but shallow. To read it is to be swallowed up by the black surf and the salt air, to reach for the full moon and find it rippling against your fingertips.

Michael Chasin lives for stories, and for everything that goes into them. You can find him hosting the Post Credits Podcast, on twitter, and on his blog.



 

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