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Book review

The Ocean At The End of the Lane is An Intriguing, if Unsubstantial, Magic Realist Fable

The Ocean At The End of the Lane (2013) is the first I’ve read of Neil Gaiman. I begin with my usual caveat: this is a speculative novel, and I seldom like books in this genre. I’ve begun trying it regularly, and I liked this book better than some others I’ve tried recently. Still, if my criticism is too harsh, put it down to my ambivalence and ignorance about speculative fiction.

Still on board? Let’s get started.

Ocean’s Prologue and Epilogue offer a frame: an unnamed middle-aged narrator revisits his childhood home, and catches up with two of the three women who played key roles in the story that unfolded, a few decades in the past, in the book’s body. The purpose of this frame narrative remains unclear: it offers neither resolution, nor even illumination, to the main story. It establishes that the narrator has made, and forgotten, this back-home journey several times before. Again, the relevance of this datum remains unclear.

Ocean’s main story follows the still unnamed narrator, now seven years old, through a series of increasingly improbable events. He lives in a mansion with a rambling garden, with inattentive parents and a spiteful younger sister. Through unforeseen events involving a house-guest, he meets a family of three women: the Hempstocks. He travels with one of them to meet a being in another dimension – a monster, a “Flea” – who uses him to travel back to this world. This Flea then reincarnates in human shape as Ursula Monkton. Ursula becomes the family’s live-in governess, and makes of them her minions to wreak her will on the world.

What this will is remains unclear. Ursula wants to get people to love her by giving them what they want. What they want is money. In giving it to them, she somehow causes their immediate deaths. Ursula originates from a mysterious world never visited, never described; when first found, she is stranded in yet another world, which in turn is characterised only via orange skies. In this midway world, the Flea (later Ursula) is introduced in the guise of a circus-tent, pink and gray. This imagery of a monster is original; so is the subsequent use of “rotting cloth” as instruments to convey Ursula’s horrors as well as powers. But these brilliant bits of imagery are stranded in a world wholly underdeveloped.

Ocean reads, at first, like a children’s novel. This it most definitely is not. Ocean is oddly free of humour. A few half-hearted attempts come from the Hempstocks – millennium-old mistresses of the universe – regressing, in times of stress, to country accents. These concessions apart, Ocean is a very serious book that doesn’t earn its seriousness.

Ocean’s style is startlingly simple. Admirably so: knowing how elusive simplicity is. But this simplicity stops short of being lucid, for two reasons.

First, the narrator – speaking as an adult recollecting events he has till now forgotten – keeps interjecting observations on human behaviour not very deep, but offered very self-consciously. “Adults stay on roads. Children seek shortcuts.” This trivial insight is elaborated at first appearance; later in the narrative, it is thrust back upon us, again self-consciously. Similar insights periodically break the narrative continuity.

Second, the story itself is unclear. Early on, we get a sense that the world we’ve glimpsed is part of a multiverse well-developed: heavy with history, rich in detail. Ocean fails this promise. Lucidity of style demands content well-developed. A lucid speculative story demands a world the writer has crafted carefully and fully, even if the story on the page shows it only in glimpses. In Ocean, all we have is a bizarre episode: a shadow of tantalising shape, cast by an object which, when we look at it, proves insubstantial.

Nothing is explained. Why did nobody else perceive the massive disturbances in space-time-reality that must’ve been caused by the appearance of the Flea, and of the Cleaners summoned to remove her? Why did the narrator forget all that happened? Why does he periodically revisit home, remember these events, and forget them again? What exactly is Ursula? How long have the Hempstocks been around? How many times has the world been created? If the Hempstocks have been around for aeons, why do the events of this episode put one of them in cryosleep in the ocean at the end of the lane?

If Ocean fails to answer any of the numerous Whys and Hows it raises, it does succeed at one thing: compassion. The book’s heroines, the Hempstocks, show neither anger nor hatred for the Flea invading their world. They see the Flea as doing what comes naturally to her: just as the Hempstocks do what comes to them. This refusal to call Ursula the Flea evil is only a gesture: structurally, in the story, Ursula is evil.

But it is an important gesture in these fractious times: when discourse and nations are both increasingly polarised; when opposing parties are largely incapable of any engagement beyond calling each other evil/ignorant/inhuman. If only as a gesture, Ocean recognises that dismissing individuals or races as evil achieves nothing, and fails to solve problems whose origins lie at the heart of humanity: in our blind quest for power.

The Ocean At the End of The Lane is a quick if unsatisfying read. Its style and tone merit a reading, even if its substance proves less substantial than the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave.

Buy the book here. Please consider buying an ebook to save paper.

END

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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