The Short Version: A young man who isn’t so young anymore returns to his childhood home for a funeral. Somewhere between funeral and reception, he finds himself traversing old roads towards places he’d nearly forgotten – and, as he sits by the pond behind Hempstock Farm, he remembers a story that’d changed his life, also nearly forgotten.
The Review: If there was any doubt that Neil Gaiman was due canonization as one of our greatest living writers, let this slim and yet terribly potent novel put the debate to rest. Who else could take 178 pages and deliver a tale that packs more weight, emotionally and intellectually, than most novels twice its size? This feat of TARDIS-esque literary trickery shouldn’t be surprising and yet I was just that: surprised.
There is often a sense of nervousness that comes over a reader – specifically one who would call him-or-herself a fan – when an acclaimed novelist (or musician or filmmaker or insert type of artist here) is about to deliver a new piece after some time away. Oh, Neil hasn’t been away-away – he’s been writing “all ages” novels and Doctor Who scripts and telling us to make fantastic mistakes – but he hasn’t been telling those fantastic, ‘adult’ stories that I have developed such an abiding love for. So the announcement of Ocean made me catch my breath. But it seemed, on the surface, to be a cop-out. At little more than novella length, how could this sate my hunger for a story from the pen of Gaiman – let alone stand up against the towering achievements of American Gods, Neverwhere, and the rest?
I should never have doubted.
Even more timely for the fact that I read the book while sitting in various locations around the house where I grew up, the story is deceptively simple. On the outside, there’s a framing device: an ‘artist’ – unclear what kind, although the reader’s mind can make a short and easy jump to ‘novelist’ and then quickly to Mr. Gaiman himself – back at home, reminiscing and trying to, even at middle age, find his way in life. He finds himself somewhere almost on the border of memory and reality and as he pushes that boundary, he recounts for us the story that he remembers of when he first encountered the Hempstock women.
Gaiman, always one for mythic archetypes, places the Hempstock women into the roles of Maid, Matron, and Crone without ever letting the reader fully believe that they are witches or a coven. They exhibit signs thereof – but they also, very distinctly, tell the narrator that they are not witches. Instead, they exist almost more like the Fates: larger than time, outside of our universe and only appearing here for reasons unfathomable. There are so many questions about their existence and their reality but, despite the fact that we are given only few answers, we never clamor for more information. Instead, by the end of the novel, as though Old Mrs. Hempstock was working her way on us the same as she does several folks throughout, we feel as though the mist and shroud of the story is just… our mind… folding things over, fading things out. Like a memory.
To say that the narrator of the novel would appear to be the author, lightly fictionalized, does not strain the bounds of comprehension. I’ve seen it writ that the inciting event of the story comes fully formed from Neil’s childhood – a traumatic and life-altering event, no doubt – and the scene where the young boy climbs down the drainpipe from his room seems to tie directly into the picture of a young Neil doing just that at age (according to the back flap) 7. I would not call this story autobiographical but, at the same time, it feels like the most autobiographical work Neil has written yet. A magnificent trick, that is: to make a thing seem like something while all the while endeavoring to make it something else. If you had any qualms about its length, the small fact of its near-truth should be enough to make any reader understand – and forgive – its powerful brevity. Of course, it also would likely not have been as potent were it even one page longer.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. There are lots of other things here, mystical and mysterious – from the mundane and humane (the narrator’s confusion and vague comprehension of the mysteries of adulthood) to the dark and dangerous (the “cleaners”, Ursula, even the Hempstock women themselves and the ocean in their back yard) – but to describe them any more concretely than I have just now would do the book a disservice. It can be read in one sitting, although I encourage you to take your time. It won’t take you very long, no matter how you approach it – and once it’s done, like with any true event in life, it is done. You can re-read it, you can remember it, you can do many “re” things with it – but you will never again have the experience of memorystuff that this novel seems to be built from. Reading it feels like remembering those summer nights when it wasn’t so hot and the sun never quite seemed to set – like those winter days full of snow and cold – like crashing spring showers seen through a pane of glass – like the crunch of leaves on a crisp October morning. You can’t go home again, not really, but Ocean makes it seem like maybe – just maybe – you can remember yourself pretty close.