I finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman recently, and I have to say, I thought it was meh. I know a lot of people LOVED it, and they LOVE him, so throwing out any criticisms could rub people the wrong way. But I’m going to do so with the caveat that I think he is a beautiful writer, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to suggest this to a friend to read.
So if I thought it was only meh, why would I recommend it? Well, first there’s his imagination. Gaiman just creates a fascinating world, and I love the use of a child character to help bring magic into an adult world. We adults need more magic in our lives. Second, there’s his prose. The man just writes gorgeous prose. That’s all there is to it. He paints a gorgeous picture of the world inside his head. When those two qualities combine, you have an almost guaranteed escapist book, even if it’s not perfect.
And it’s most certainly not perfect. Which means now we’re on to the fun part… I get to stretch my literary muscles, and critique!
I read this for a new book club I just joined. (Yay! Book clubs!) Almost everyone had great things to say about the book, but more importantly, they found depth in it. They noted that the main character didn’t tell us his name, and that he attends the funeral of someone at the start, presumably a close relative, but we don’t know whose funeral. And all of this is supposed to mean something. It’s just not really clear what.
This book is not Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, in which the main character doesn’t have a name in order to emphasize that she’s overshadowed by the previous woman. I’ll give Gaiman the benefit of the doubt and say he had reasons for not naming the main character or the dead person at the beginning, but I suspect they’re superficial at best.
The rumors I heard about this book were that it was originally a short story that he drew out into a “full-length” novel (in quotes because it’s still quite short). I definitely believe those rumors. The story reads like a short story that got lengthened, but not filled out. I can almost see an agent harping in his ear that he needed to get a new book out fast. So he whipped up this little story.
It’s a shame really. The story probably would have been amazing as a short story, and it has the makings of brilliant creative novel.. If only he’d taken the time to really flesh it out and get into his characters.
Ah. The characters. So much potential, yet so incomplete.
There are the three wise women, whom I decided to take to be the Fates, though I’m not sure if he intended that or not. (I hope that’s what he intended because adding the Fates to a book is just awesome!) And I want to know more about their story. Even if it’s not told to me straight, I could go for more hints. Where does there magic come from? Why are they here? Why is their pond an ocean? There are more questions, but I’m afraid of spoiling the story, so I’ll keep them to myself. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for unknowns in a story. This one just has so many that it feels like Gaiman forgot to dive into the backstory of his own novel.
I also could have gone for more character development of the kid. Gaiman even admits at the end of the book that his main character hadn’t developed when he claimed that 7-year-olds just don’t do that. Seriously, I don’t have the book with me but he literally has his character say something to the effect of “normally a character needs to be developed for a story to be any good, but I was just seven, so it’s not reasonable to expect that.” Again, that’s me paraphrasing and not a direct quote, but you get the point. He recognized and acknowledged that he hadn’t bothered to do anything with his main character. If that’s not the epitome of lazy writing, I don’t know what is. In fact, that was the most irksome part of the book for me. He acknowledged he should have done more!
My one other big gripe was how conveniently monsters could appear and get sent away whenever the story needed one of those things to happen. It’s not clear who these monsters are or why some of them show up on earth even though most of them stay away in another realm. Nor is it obvious why the monsters who eat monsters are still on earth, given that there are no monsters left on earth to be eaten. If you haven’t read the book, I apologize for how confusing that probably sounds. But then again, the fact that I can’t properly describe the bad guys is another sign that he got lazy in his storytelling. (Admittedly, I could just suck at describing bad guys, but I assure you, in this case, it’s not my fault.)
Ok. So there’s my brief critique of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Normally, a real critique should probably have more analysis, but it’s late and I’m still new at this, so there’s nothing more for me to say. (Do you see what I did there???)
And now that I’ve had my fun as a literary critic, I encourage everyone to get the book! Yeah, I clearly think it’s flawed, but it’s still imaginative and fun, and I am all about a good imagination here.