Well. It’s been over a year since I’ve had to organize my thoughts on a book in a way more coherently than a mosquito-like high pitched whining or a bland “eh” (I’m discounting school related writing because that’s its own behemoth). But I’m looking forward to using too many gifs and parentheticals to rant about literature again (and also to force you to communicate with me during the school year because YOU NEVER TEXT YOU NEVER CALL).
[While I’m talking about the past and all, I’m going to take this opportunity to bulldoze over the fourth wall and say, Reader, if a letter-writing, book-reviewing, gif-wielding Crystal sounds familiar, then welcome to the new and improved incarnation of (half of) letsplottwistagain.wordpress.com! Yes, I am back from the dead or Freshman year of college, whatever you want to call it, and I’m here to tell you that letsplottwistagain has been released into the wild. Maybe in 2 million years it’ll be sourced in some anthropologist’s thesis as another relic of this internet age. Also Ana is now busy doing life things, so.]
The book I’m reviewing today is written by Neil Gaiman, the mind behind Coraline, which in itself should tell you something.
Like Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, plays on fears that might be more often thought of as child fears. The protagonist for most of the novel is a boy of 7 years, who has to deal with supernatural monsters and make sense of impossible things—and he does so, with remarkable dexterity—yet he’s still afraid of the dark. What Gaiman does really well is the mark of the true author, that is, he’s able to close the age gap by making the reader 7 years old again. No matter how long it’s been since the last time you were afraid of the dark, for the next almost 200 pages, you’re 10 years or 20 years or 50 years younger, back when the dark wasn’t just an absence of light but the presence of every menacing possibility.
*Mild spoilers ahead*
He evokes in the reader that primordial helplessness of being a child in an adult world and turns it into heart-pounding terror. What can you do when your father is being controlled by a supernatural being that can take on the ultimate form of power—that of a really hot governess? The novel feels faintly like Cinderella. But instead of a evil stepmother, the villain is more like No Face from Spirited Away. She just wanted to make the people happy by giving them money. Is that so wrong? Like No Face, she’s a possibly monstrous, powerful being who has a skewed understanding of the way humans work. (Also it’s interesting to note that the “Be careful what you wish for” theme so prominent in Coraline features here as well. Surprise! The money doesn’t actually make anyone happier.)
“Something came to me, and pleaded for love and help. It told me how I could make all the things like it happy. That they are simple creatures, and all any of them want is money, just money, and nothing more. Little tokens-of-work. If it had asked, I would have given them wisdom, or peace, perfect peace…”
“I ONLY GAVE THEM WHAT THEY NEEDED, she was saying, petulant and afraid. I MADE THEM HAPPY.
‘You made my daddy hurt me,’ I said…
I NEVER MADE THEM DO ANYTHING”
The children vs. adults dynamic is drawn along the same lines as those in Spirited Away, wisdom vs. ignorance, adaptability vs. inflexibility etc. In this novel, the power of children is celebrated. Their ability to know hidden ways and to believe in things adults can no longer believe in is their strength, and allows them to triumph.
Gaiman has created another thematically rich and textually riveting masterpiece, as he does. If I had to unpack all of it (and I do want to) it would take me 200 of these posts, so I’ll leave with this one quote that speaks to the power of language. It’s reminiscent of the language-as-a-concept in the Bible, where speaking slides directly into being. But even if we cannot speak this “language of shaping,” it’s enough to know that with our words we can create powerful things too. Stories like this one, that can teach and elicit fear and joy and hope.
“In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, 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. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly…I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.”