Pure escapism entertainment is a hard trick to pull off in today’s fast world.
Everyone is multi-tasking, everyone has three different things going on at once. And then consider the world of books. There are eBooks on iPhones, and we can check sports scores and emails on our Kindles. Heck, you can even see on some e-readers how others feel about the book while you’re reading it. Did others like that twist too? Now you know! Yes, books can come with running commentary.
So the great magic trick for today’s novelists is to come up with an idea that makes it so a reader doesn’t think about our wired-in reality. A story so captivating that we want nothing more than to sit and just take in the narrative, disappear from the distraction of our busy lives.
It is definitely a challenge fit for a literary Houdini and Neil Gaiman is that kind of a magician.
Gaiman’s new novel “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is a story built out of memory. And like our own memories, that information is fluid, foggy. Our unnamed narrator, while avoiding a funeral, stumbles into a house that he may or may not remember. He is welcomed in and is drawn to sit in the back near a pond. And it is there, looking at the water, that terrifying and wonderful memories begin to return to him of an adventure he had as a child. Those adventures took place with a girl named Lettie Hempstock who told him that the pond was actually an ocean.
This is such a beautiful and precious tale that one can’t help but feel it is a story best told in whispers. It follows in that new trend of magic realism, which are stories about our world, with something more. And like most magic realism tales, it is like unraveling a sweater. You notice one thing off and suddenly your entire environment has changed and needs to be put back together. Books like this always ask that fun question: What if there was something more to the planet than what we can see in front of us? And then throws possibilities at us. Always just adding enough so we don’t lose our suspension of disbelief. Could something like this happen? Possibly.
I was completely hooked by this book, reminding me almost immediately why I love reading and literature so much. See, unlike films and computer games and plays, a book enters through your own imagination, it exists in us. It is a private conversation. Yes, as readers we are part of the process, we aren’t just having it shown to us. The writer constructs the possibilities there, just giving you enough for you to fill in the rest.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Lettie Hempstock is the youngest of three generations of women living in a farmhouse, which may or may not be a farmhouse. Her grandmother might be as old as time, but she will never really say. Gaiman never explains everything we experience, we just see it through the narrator’s eyes. And for the amazing Hempstock clan, everything that happens makes sense; it’s real for them, not always worth explaining. So we go along like the narrator, trusting in these wondrous characters.
Someday someone will turn this into a film with a loud soundtrack, celebrities and special effects, and someday it might even be a play, or a website, or an app, and at that moment something will be lost as it joins the noise of our frantic world. But before it does, take my advice, turn off all of the demanding electronics in your house and just read this book.
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is magic.
Scott’s the author of two new novels: “A Jane Austen Daydream” and “Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare”. His writing on a variety of topics can also be found online at sdsouthard.com. His blog is called “The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.”