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The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins in an emotional dead zone.  The narrator has returned home for a funeral, going through the motions of shaking hands and accepting condolences, and finds himself driving around without any thought to where he’s going.  He just needs to get away.

It turns out, of course, that somewhere in the subconscious waters, he knows exactly where he’s going: The Hempstock Farm, where a childhood friend used to claim that her pond was actually an ocean.  As he sits by the pond, he’s suddenly flooded with memories of what really happened one childhood year.

At this point, we’re very early in the book, but Gaiman has already addressed us in a voice we haven’t gotten from him before.  The book’s initial pages convey the surreal detachment that washes over you as a coping mechanism when dealing with things like family deaths.  It’s also in stark contrast to the clarity with which Gaiman later mixes vivid scenes of childhood with an adult’s distance from those events.  His narrator is recalling these events clearly, but he’s also swept up in the details and sensations of being a young boy again.

One of Gaiman’s strengths has always been his clear writing style. I’ve always felt that it served him extremely well in his short stories, which are efficient and bone-lean without the loss of being entertaining.  Especially impressive was his recent journal entry about the loss of Cabal, his dog of ten years.  Gaiman, clearly flooded with grief, didn’t succumb to the temptation most of us would feel to bog his eulogy down in an attempt to get in every single detail.  He treated his years with Cabal as a narrative, hitting enough high points and low points for readers to get some sense of what Cabal meant to him.  It was clear, and it was heartbreaking.

In the lead-up to Ocean‘s publication, Gaiman had made references to the book being rooted in more memory and personal experience than many of his works.  In a recent review of the book, Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer told the story of how Gaiman had tried to tell her something important and personal, and how she hadn’t listened, and how then one day Gaiman began reading to her from the manuscript that would become The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Now, as readers, we have no idea what that pivotal moment (or moments) from Gaiman’s past turned out to be.  And it’s certainly a fool’s errand to try and discern from the text of Ocean — a book chock to the gills with monsters, immortals,  and cosmic peace — what’s true and what isn’t, or if any of it’s true in the real-world factual sense.  In that sense, Ocean is very much like recent albums by Jason Isbell (in which the former Drive-by Trucker freely blends his own thoughts and feelings into the sad characters in his songs) and Patty Griffin (in which Griffin constructs a personal history of her recently passed father).  In both cases, personal experience and imagination go into the creative blender, and art — art that takes what it needs and renders the dividing lines invisible — comes out.

Nevertheless, unless Gaiman has the best literary poker face of his generation, this feels like the most we’ve gotten of Gaiman the person in one of his novels.  So many of the narrator’s memories — a bookish childhood, a small bedroom with a sink just the right height, comic books, a tentative relationship with a father — ring true.  Granted, we could just be dealing with Gaiman’s famously fertile brain, but Ocean reads like a book that comes from a very real emotional place, even though we know (we’re pretty sure) that Gaiman never fought dark supernatural forces.

Ultimately, I think this is Gaiman’s best book Gaiman’s so far. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been a fan of Gaiman’s work since the early days of The Sandman, but my opinion of his work has ebbed and flowed. I’ve enjoyed much of his poetry, but I continue to have a “meh” reaction to one of his recent efforts, “House” (being fully aware that the poem’s subject matter directly ties into my thoughts on Ocean).  I was one of the few who found something lacking in American Gods, and had come to the conclusion that he was a much better short story writer than he was a novelist.  Anansi Boys quickly cured me of that misconception, but it was still Gaiman telling the story from a distance.  Excellent fantasy, but what to take from it other than a good tale (which, I’ll admit, is often quite enough)?

Ocean, though.  This is a new beast.  This is Gaiman telling quite the good story (I think it contains some of his most beautiful, evocative writing yet), but also investing something of himself into the mix.  The result is a more layered story than we’re used to seeing from him, where the mythology and the imagination are informed by personal experience.

I don’t think Ocean is a perfect book. For example, this reader wishes more time was spent on the pivotal relationship between the narrator and his father.  That doesn’t prevent Ocean from being an effectively frightening book.  And it certainly doesn’t prevent Ocean from being a sad book (both in terms of specific scenes and the book’s overall tone) that justifies Gaiman’s superstar status in the fantasy world.

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