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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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A Book A Week: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
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Who can keep up with Neil Gaiman? He writes fiction (for adults and children), screenplays (for film and television), comics and graphic novels. He seems to always be popping up here and there, speaking, teaching, blogging... the man is busy. I am not into everything he does, but I like some of what he does very much, so I try to look out for his new adult fiction, which has been scarce in the last few years. (I also love his episodes of Doctor Who.)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman's return to adult magical realism. In this novel, a man looks back on events that occurred when he was 7 years old, when he comes, for a time, under the protection of the mysterious family who live down a dirt road not far from his house. When a sudden death unleashes an old elemental evil, the boy is caught up in the battle to subdue it, a battle waged by his friend Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother, who look harmless but whom we soon find out are practitioners of powerful ancient magic.

Like all good magical realists, Gaiman expertly mixes the mundane with the fantastic. Thus our 7-year-old is worried about his birthday party and loves his kitten, but he unquestionably accepts that Lettie's grandmother can change past events with her needle and thread, and that Lettie keeps a jar of shadows dissolved in vinegar. For a time the malevolent force takes on the shape of something that terrifies all children: an evil nanny.

Gaiman says this book is partly about the ways in which children are wiser than adults -- the boy can sense the nanny's true nature right away, but his father cannot. Her powerful sexual hold on the father is rendered in a few quick, disturbing scenes that are brilliantly written. Adult readers can tell exactly what is going on, but the boy only knows that something is horribly amiss and he cannot understand why his father can't see it.

Gaiman has written about Lettie Hempstock's family before, most recently in The Graveyard Book. I would love to see a whole novel about the Hempstock women, especially one that focused on the grandmother, who says she remembers the Big Bang. This is clever, original stuff and I wish that Gaiman spread himself a bit less thinly so he could give me more of what I want.


Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week. She can be followed @abookaweek on Twitter.

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