I imagine that if you’re reading a blog called “Geek Girl In Love”, you probably are already a Neil Gaiman fan – but if you’re not, this book is a great place to start. In English major parlance: it uses the tropes of mythology, horror, and coming of age to produce a lyrical vision of metaphor made actual. In normal language: it’s scary as shit.
Ocean tells the story of an unnamed man who is home for a funeral and takes a side trip to his childhood home. Past his old home is a farmhouse and a road that leads to a pond. At the pond, the man begins to remember long-buried memories from his childhood, when he was menaced by occult forces and aided by the Hempstock family.
This book is deeply creepy. In some ways it resembles Coraline, with its child narrator who sees a world grown-ups can’t, and in which the family members who are supposed to take care of you are dark and terrifying shadows of themselves. The book is also beautiful, with the Hempstock farmhouse representing all that is comforting and safe, and the natural world being both terrifying and lovely. Here’s the boy eating dinner with the Hempstocks, following a harrowing night and about to face more terrors still:
I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as I could not control the world I was in. I could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock.
Ocean is a bittersweet story. It’s about discovering that there are worlds within worlds – not just ones of magic versus the mundane, but ones inside people’s minds, ones in which adults are thinking thoughts and wanting and fearing things that have nothing to do with you, the child. The narrator takes the horrors he encounters more in stride than other children might, because he already believes that the world is not safe (he has no friends, and no one comes to his birthday party). This isn’t a book about the truth setting you free – too much knowledge is seen to be a dangerous thing, and indeed, our narrator seems to be unsettled and vaguely unhappy as an adult, perhaps because he was always a sad person, perhaps because of a trace of the supernatural remains inside him, or perhaps because he was exposed to too much knowledge too soon.
Neil Gaiman has a remarkable ability to inspire others. People don’t just read his books, they inhabit them, and they interpret them with their own drawings and poetry and music. Maybe this is because he creates a sense that the world he’s portraying is deeply layered. For everything he describes, and he describes things vividly, there’s a suggestion of a whole host of other things not described. So there’s room for everybody and every thing in it. I highly recommend a visit to Zen Comics for this interpretation of Gaiman’s speech, “Make Good Art”. I also recommend that if you are going to read Ocean, you set some serious time aside. It’s a small book, but you’ll have to read it in one sitting. Then, you’ll want to read it again – once for “what happens next”, once for the imagery and themes.