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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Little Too Whimsical

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel - Neil Gaiman

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is the story of a boy who accidentally encounters an ancient and malevolent being that threatens to destroy both him and his family. He is saved by the intervention of a trio of females – grandmother, mother and child – who live on a nearby farm and appear to embody some immensely powerful magical force. They originally came to our world aeons ago through an ocean. All that is left of that ocean now is the duck pond at the back of their farm but it still retains a connection to its primeval source and its waters possess all kinds of magical and spiritual qualities, as the protagonist will eventually discover.

It's exactly the kind of novel we've come to expect from Neil Gaiman - clever, imaginative, slightly whimsical story-telling that blends highly original detail with traditional elements to create a striking piece of contemporary fantasy. It seems to me that there are also various little homages to other writers who may have influenced him, little touches, simultaneously folksy and hyper-real, that are reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, and a more politically acceptable reinvention of some of C S Lewis's grand themes.

For some reason, however, it didn't quite cut the mustard for me. I'm not saying it isn't compulsively readable, as well as often very moving. Indeed, there is an episode right at the beginning where nobody comes to the protagonist's seventh birthday party that is wonderfully effective.

'Nobody came to my seventh birthday party. There was a table laid with jellies and trifles, with a party hat beside each place and a birthday with seven candles on it in the centre of the table. The cake had a book drawn on it, in icing. My mother, who had organised the party, told me that the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a cake before, and that mostly for boys it was footballs or spaceships. I was their first book.

When it became obvious that nobody was coming, my mother lit the seven candles on the cake, and I blew them out. I ate a slice of the cake, as did my little sister and one of her friends (both of them attending the party as observers, not participants), before they fled, giggling.'

But there's not quite enough of this sort of thing. The whimsy rather outweighs the emotional narrative for me and, though I certainly enjoyed it, I couldn't help feeling that he is capable of something much more substantial.