Tuesday, December 24, 2013

I knew terrible things, but I knew I musn't let adults know

So, the just-previous audiobook is narrated by an actual rock star, while this book is narrated by a literary rock star who just happens to be an outstanding audiobook narrator. Only Neil Gaiman can follow Lyle Lovett. Who would not wish to listen to Neil Gaiman read his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane?

This slim novel (only the second of his adult works that I've read, here's the first) is from the first-person perspective of an unnamed 40-ish man returning to his Sussex village for a funeral. He goes for a drive and finds himself outside the house he lived in when he was just seven years old. Then he was a solitary boy (no one came to his birthday party) who made friends with the slightly older girl, Lettie Hempstock, who lived near the pond at the end of the country lane. The events of the novel begin when his parents take in a boarder, an opal salesman, who -- after running over the family cat, subsequently asphyxiates himself in the family's Mini down at the end of the lane.

The boy is affected by this death in a rather odd way, so he turns to Lettie for advice. She understands that something has crossed over from ... somewhere, and that it needs to be sent back. She takes the boy with her, warning him to not let hold of her hand. He does, of course, giving the creature greater access to our world in the form of a terrifying nanny named Ursula Monkton. He's got to alert Lettie -- along with her mum and grandmother (who might remember the Big Bang) -- but first he's got to escape Ursula Monkton.

I really enjoyed the pure terror and tension of this book, which likely has a lot to do with how Gaiman reads it. Our hero undergoes quite a lot for a seven-year-old and his efforts to escape Ursula Monkton are thrilling. There's also a lot of humor here -- locked in by malevolent Monkton he reads all his mother's quasi-Nancy Drew books that all have to do with saving England during World War II, he sings Gilbert and Sullivan tunes while trapped in a fairy ring (the only safe spot), he must wear the only clothing the Hempstock's have for him -- a frock coat and a voluminous nightgown. The magic is a bit hard to get one's arms around, but really, does it matter much beyond Hempstocks = good, Monkton = evil? (Except for those other hungry bird-creatures who are called up by Lettie ... good? evil?)

I also liked the sense of melancholy infused in the novel. We never learn who the man is mourning, but it's clearly not his only loss; he seems mired in his life's losses. Of course, later we learn of a significant tragedy that resulted from his encounter with Ursula Monkton. When he ends up immersed in the pond near the Hempstock's farm (a pond that Lettie insists is an ocean), the melancholy tone briefly turns to peace.

Gaiman's narration is delightful; I'm always impressed at how he uses his familiarity with the story to his advantage. You never have the feeling in his narrations that he's looked at these words over and over and is bored by them, rather that he revels in the story he's about to tell you. His quiet delivery sets the elegiac tone, the matter-of-fact way that he reads disguises the plot developments to come. This approach makes the story full of surprises. He never pretends that he is a seven-year-old boy, but is always telling the mysterious events from a distance, yet at the same time the horror and fear at what the boy is experiencing are palpable.

In a Gaiman narration, it's not about the character voices or the accents, but he still does a decent job of creating consistent voices. Ursula Monkton has a flat imperiousness that is bone-chilling, Lettie's business-like approach to dispatching the invaders comes through in her delivery, and Gaiman even produces a wraith-like scratchy voice for those nasty bird-things.

Gaiman says the name of his book with a very interesting pause: The Ocean ... at the End of the Lane.  He also prefaces the acknowledgements at the end of the book with a sweet disclaimer, "you do not have to listen to it." But, of course, we do listen. Among the many people he thanks is Art Spiegelman, whose "word balloon" from a New Yorker interview with Maurice Sendak Gaiman uses as his epigraph (I also have used a portion of it ... but without Art Spiegelman's permission!): "I remember my own childhood vividly ... I knew terrible things ... but I knew I musn't let adults know I knew ... it would scare them."

[This is probably not the Hempstock's pond, but it did come up after searching for 'pond lane sussex' in Wikimedia Commons. The photo is of Combe Pond in Rake, West Sussex and was taken by Anthony Brunning as part of the Geograph Project (grid square SU8126).]

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Narrated by the author
Harper Audio, 2013.  5:49

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