Neil Gaiman’s new novel “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” explores the fabric of memory in such a way as to equate it with myth and legend. Gaiman’s writing, which I would characterize as a cross between Tim Burton and Alice Hoffman, is always rich with color, texture, scent and sound, but more to the point, he has the ability to weave a new story which feels like an ancient myth. In this book, a man returns to his childhood home to discover his house has been torn down. Resting at a neighbor’s house, he begins to remember spectacular events which occurred there during a night when he was about seven years old. Like Gaiman’s other work, The Graveyard Book, his has the ability to tell a sophisticated story through a young boy very convincingly. Down the lane from his home lives three extraordinary women: Letty, Ginny, and Old Mrs Hempstock, who live a simple farm life, but are capable of miraculous acts. Old Mrs. Hemptock keeps the full moon hanging over the south side of the house because she likes its light, Letty can carry the ocean in a bucket, and Ginny can sew a rent in the fabric of time. When a being from another world is accidentally carried into this world and threatens the young hero, Lettie vows to protect him, no matter what. The fantastical creatures Gaiman imagines are terrible in strange and unexpected ways, yet equally horrific are the events unleashed in the every day world. The Hempstock women have the ability to erase events by simply snipping them out of the fabric of an old dressing gown, and likewise can erase bad memories not unlike a scene from Star Wars–“Nothing to see here…” and suggests an alternate truth. They thereby change memory, not reality. Or do they? I confess I do not think I understood all the meanings within this tale, but was able to enjoy it on its most basic level as a good story.
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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman won the John Newbery Medal for its contribution to American literature for children, yet the book opens with the description of a man with a very large, sharp knife systematically killing every member of a family as they sleep, save for the smallest toddler. I was surprised and a bit creeped out by this opening scene, especially since the book is billed as a middle grade novel. Fear not, dear reader, the story gets much better! The delightful, fanciful and fun story begins when the toddler escapes and wanders into an old cemetery. There, he is adopted by two childless ghosts, the Owens, and is put under the protection of a mysterious guardian, Silas, who is neither dead nor alive . The toddler is given the name Nobody–Bod for short–and the protection of the graveyard, as long as he never leaves its enclosures. The fun of the novel is in the tales of his adventures, being taught by ghosts who range from an ancient Roman general to a woman killed for witchcraft. Bod learns ghostly skills, such as fading, and dream walking, and the ability to open a ghoul gate…but he eventually longs to be with other people like him, people who are alive. But Bod has been warned by his guardian that the man who killed his family is still out there, and still looking for him. This tale of good versus evil with a clever twist of characters (a good vampire and werewolf) never fails to amuse and entertain. The author, Neil Gaiman, is a master of fantasy and imagination–think J.K. Rowling meets Tim Burton. The suspense and fun never flags as we watch Bod grow up amongst his most unusual companions, and tackle the greatest challenge of his life. The graveyard story was written for kids, but I enjoyed every minute of it. For an extra treat, listen to the book on tape. When I saw that it was recorded by the author, I thought, “Uh-oh” as often times authors are not the best readers of their own works, but in this case Gaiman is perfect. He has a voice not unlike Alan Rickman (think Snape) and voices the characters with feeling and style.