[Book review may contain spoilers]
A few lifetimes ago I used to study and practice certain rites at the fringe of reality. Mostly, the focus would be on the history of arcane knowledge and beliefs throughout the various periods of mankind but, more often than not, I’d plunge into them myself.
I have long since put all that behind me but the heart of it emerged while reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
This was also the first book that reminded me of a zodiac sign (yeah, I know, but bear with me):
Symbolically, Cancer is all about our roots. The primordial waters, gestation, motherhood. The Moon. Our connection to family, to our history and childhood. The round matriarch who feeds and nurtures her entire family and in-laws. Moody as the tides, imaginative as only those with one foot in Wonderland can be.
The main character and narrator is 7 years old when the story takes place. I was already halfway into the book when I realised I did not know his name. Flick back the pages (I don’t always pay attention to details) and no name was found.
Unlike most protagonists in fantasy stories, our hero isn’t fearless or extremely courageous. He’s scared most of the time and doesn’t shy away from saying so which, oddly enough, feels very reassuring. Because in the life outside of book pages, we only truly know if we’re brave when the source of our fears is staring at us. Otherwise, we just feel afraid.
From other reviews I came across, it seems that many readers speculate the boy didn’t really live through all of what he suddenly remembers as an adult. That, instead, his childhood imagination coloured it up. These are obviously the same people that say Calvin only imagines that Hobbes is a real tiger (which is nonsense, you can clearly tell he only pretends to be a stuffed animal around other people).
I say the Hempstock ladies and all the magic realism that surrounds them were very real. That it was wiser to make him forget or give it a more normal and boring clothing.
All in all, it’s classic Gaiman: there’s the magic that crosses over to the real (?) world. A very peculiar door. The strong female characters and the quintessential cat.
It doesn’t beat Coraline as a perfect modern fairy tale, but it’s a beautifully watery story.
And once you hear the language, you’ll remember it for life:
(…) it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything.