A student gave me a copy of Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane and asked that I read it, otherwise I would have never read another work by Neil Gaiman in my life. The premise of the novel is interesting enough: three women, who are obviously the three fates of myth, are alive and well in England. They are also magical and come from another dimension, but their coming-from-another-dimension-ness has brought “other things” along for the ride, bad things, and those bad things attract worse things. Interesting idea. However, the story is told through the perspective of a 7 year old boy who talks (remembers and narrates) like a 40 year old man.
My first point: the story is more or less about women (the central conflict involves only women), so why does a male protagonist have to be shoehorned in? Point the second, if you must have a male lead (and I’m sure Gaiman does) why must it be a child when the author clearly didn’t want to write it from a child’s perspective? The narrative voice is just too mature, it actually feels as though Gaiman revised the character to be much younger than he has started with in the first draft, then slapped on a “I remember being a kid” opening chapter. Air tight! An example:
I found myself imaging a valley filled with dinosaurs, millions of years ago, who had died in battle, or of disease: imagining first the carcasses of the rotting thunder-lizards, bigger than buses, and then the vultures of that aeon: gray-black, naked, winged but featherless; faces from nightmares — beak-like snouts filled with needle-sharp teeth, made for rending and tearing and devouring, and hungry red eyes.
Forgetting for a second that most 7 year old children don’t contemplate aeons that sentence has four ands, two colons, a dash, and a semicolon*. Unnecessary. Absolutely no one in the book seems British and there are no accents or use of slang of any kind that indicate that this took place in England. Sloppy. That the youngest of the fates, Lettie, drifts into a Scottish accent when angered – Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter style – just seems stupid.
The book, however, could be really good, which is perhaps the most frustrating thing about it. If it wasn’t about the little boy, if Gaiman was willing to write even a single sub-plot (it started as a short story and you can tell), if it couldn’t be boiled down to “a woman sacrifices herself to save a man” (or worse “mythic goddess sacrifices herself for pants-peeing boy nobody”), if you didn’t know that the kitten was going to die the second it appears (because it’s Gaiman and we know that this is his ham-fisted attempt at giving us the feels), then this would be a good novel. The issue is that Neil Gaiman wrote it, which is a pity, because he’s just not up to the task.
* Yes I crazy-punctuate, but I am not a novelist writing my 43rd book or whatever number this is for Neil, nor do I have the benefit of a blind editor who thinks I’m Faulkner reincarnated. “Go for it Neil! Add another colon you crazy SOB!”