Popularity and fame are no guarantees of inspiration or good work (a casual assessment of any W.H. Smith book section or the "best sellers" list in your celebrity gossip rag should provide more than ample evidence of that). Some of the most popular, the biggest selling, even the most critically celebrated pieces of work do not maintain their status because of any inherent quality or because they say anything of note, but because they happened to chime at the right moment with the right sub-culture or with the right socio-cultural circumstances. Others are simply examples of very good marketing (REF: Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight series).
On the other hand, there are those works which are celebrated with good cause, those craftsmen who achieve particular status because what they produce is simply that good.
Neil Gaiman is unambiguously of the latter tribe; a writer whose work almost universally feels effortless, as though raw inspiration bleeds from his mind onto the page with the slightest passage of his fingers, the merest whim or thought.
This is, of course, an illusion; the man himself has been quite candid in various interviews and articles about how slap-dash and inconsistent, how tortuous the process can sometimes be. That illusion, that magic trick, is arguably the most important in the writer's arsenal, perhaps any artist's; making what they sweat and agonise over, what is broken, abandoned, redrafted; shattered and pieced back together, feel like a seamless and magical effect; a product born whole, rather than disjointed and deformed, requiring myriad surgeries before it can walk or even breathe on its own.
All of Gaiman's work, from Sandman to Neverwhere, from American Gods to his Doctor Who scripts, radiate this quality; a dreaming sense of wholeness, of purity, that only someone who has similarly sweated and agonised can understand the achievement of.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no exception. If anything, it exemplifies the quality; the work of a writer who has been at his craft for a long time and is firing on all cylinders; a fey, sweet, frightening, fantastical, distantly erotic, strangely perverse tale of the transition from child to adulthood (and how that in itself is a kind of fairy-tale; an illusion we weave about ourselves and in our own heads; an insistence to the world of how big and brave we have become), about how memory is as much a story as it is record; dream and history, intermingling until there is no discerning the two.
Narratively, the set up could not be simpler; a man returning to his childhood home, finding ghosts and echoes there of a self he has forgotten, or struggled to forget, for sanity's sake, his memories a strange stew of troubled coming-of-age trauma and the most unlikely fantasies, the story sifting from moments of parental neglect that borders on the abusive to Narnian transitions into fantasy-scapes and strange other-places, all of which seem to be barely a step or shudder away from waking reality; a mythology in the time-honoured traditions of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Kafka's Metamorphosis. Flung back into memories that seem as much dream as experience, the anonymous protagonist relives tragedy and heartbreak (the death of his beloved kitten, his own strangeness and isolation from other children, his increasing distance from his family), magic, miracles and fantastical absurdity (the family of what might be witches, but are not, what might be spirits or demi-gods or elemental forces, but make no specific claims on any condition, the eponymous "ocean," which is little more than a duck pond, but simultaneously deeper and vaster than any ocean in the waking world, an other-worldly worm that becomes a demonic woman, that makes him its victim and puppet, for a time), all co-mingling in a wonderful stew, every mouthful of which suggests new possibility.
In many respects, it is more sedate than much of Gaiman's previous work; less overtly fantastical than the likes of Neverwhere and American Gods, in which the fantastical elements are decidedly solid and certain; here, what is actual and imagined is a meaningless dichotomy; a misconception that doesn't even apply: effectively evoking the manner in which we all perceive the world as children, before absolutisms and certainties are brought to bear: as a place where every shadow is pregnant with monsters, every corner a potential turn into dreams or nightmares.
It's a joyous work, achingly nostalgic, without being sentimental; grim and uncompromising without being overt.
Without a shadow of a doubt, one of the finest works Gaiman has ever produced, and well worthy of every plaudit it earns.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane can be purchased here:
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.