"I remember my own childhood vividly ... I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them." -Maurice Sendak, quoted in the epigraph
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
This review mostly written on: 5/22/14
"She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty. She winked at me. ...
"It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win."
What do I need to say about it? It's brilliant, unique. The narrator is a young child for much of the book, but it's no children's book, and not just because the fantasy holds some horror. Actually, it seems quite middle-aged, and I strongly suspect I'll enjoy it more when I'm older than I am.
That said, Neil Gaiman gets the feel and details of childhood just exactly, exquisitely right. The full picture, not just the popular nostalgic wonder, but the moments of helplessness, terror, grief. The moment when a stranger runs over the boy's kitten and thinks giving him some other tomcat fully makes up for the loss:
"'There you go. Cat for a cat,' said the opal miner, and he ruffled my hair with his leathery hand. Then he went out into the hall, leaving me in the kitchen with the cat that was not my kitten.
The man put his head back through the door. 'He's called Monster,' he said.
It felt like a bad joke."
The moment in his house when he needs to get away from someone, so he runs as fast as he can for the bathroom, the one room with a lock on the door. (Yes. I did that so many times, though in much less serious situations.)
The narrator is middle-aged in the frame story, remembering this part of his childhood, and wow. Handled so deftly. Occasionally, if I'm remembering right, his older perspective is interjected into the tale, but it's never distracting. Some of the middle-aged feel comes from your greater knowledge of what the details mean than the child narrator, but some comes from the power of the frame story. It's quiet and understated, but wow.
Oh! And this quote has rather more to do with some of the themes than I initially realized:
"I missed Fluffy. I knew you could not simply replace something alive, but I dared not grumble to my parents about it. They would have been baffled at my upset: after all, if my kitten had been killed, it had also been replaced. The damage had been made up."
Oh wow. That whole section has a LOT more to do with the rest of the book than I had noticed. Don't worry, I highly doubt anyone will figure out spoilers from that. But WOW. Life, death, attempted help, damage done...
"Lettie shrugged. 'Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don't. I don't. People are much more complicated than that. It's true of everybody.' ...
"'I'm going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.'"
"I felt uncomfortable. I did not know what to do when adults cried. It was something I had only seen twice before in my life: I had seen my grandparents cry, when my aunt had died, in hospital, and I had seen my mother cry. Adults should not weep, I knew. They did not have mothers who would comfort them."
"I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy."
Memory, magic, growing older, life, humanity, desire and danger.
You should read it.
"'And did I pass?' ...
"'You don't pass or fail at being a person, dear.'"