The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: A half-remembered fairy tale from childhood

A book that feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman
Headline, 256pp, £16.99

Neil Gaiman made his name with The Sandman, a sprawling comic book series released over the course of seven years from 1989 to 1996, which starred Morpheus, the embodiment of dreams (and imagination and art and invention – it was a broad remit).

So wide-ranging was The Sandman, wheeling from a game of thrones in Hell in one book to a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in another, that Gaiman has been touching on its themes ever since, perhaps attempting to reach those highs again. Neverwhere (1996) is an adventure through a world parallel to our own; American Gods (2001) explores the relationship of deities to their believers and asks what happens to a god who no one remembers; Coraline (2002) warns that we might not always want what we wish for. In tone and temperament, “Gaimanesque” is well defined.

In recent years, Gaiman has shifted from genre fiction for adults towards work for children and young adults. Coraline was his first volley and The Graveyard Book, a spin on The Jungle Book, came a few years later to great acclaim. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is thus heralded as Gaiman’s return to adult fiction but it bears more of a similarity to Coraline than his other novels. Both books feature a child plunged into a world of magic, where they must adhere to sets of rules they can never quite comprehend while enduring a subversion of expectations of parental responsibility.

Coraline tells the story from a child’s perspective but in Ocean it is recounted by the protagonist some 30 years later, as he returns to his childhood home for a funeral. The story isn’t filtered through the sensibilities of a child – the narrator occasionally comments on his naivety –but the plot can adopt the sort of logic that works best with a young protagonist: the ability to take odd occurrences as perfectly natural, while asking the sort of questions that might seem mad coming from an adult. It’s a smart way for Gaiman to have his cake and eat it.

Some of the plot is drawn from traditional myths of fairies and strange places – there’s a power in true names, don’t let go of your guide, keep an eye out for the maiden, the mother and the crone – but other parts are new inventions, deftly folded into the fabric of the story so that they feel older than they are. As this process is gradually revealed, the narrative begins to feel rather more episodic than it ought to. At several points, an end appears to be close, before a new quirk in the magic is introduced and the problems begin all over again.

At the start of the novel, a gathering of not-quite-witches reveal a spell that can splice a memory out of existence. Take someone’s clothing, give it a snip here, a stitch there and you can change their past. Ocean could have been made through the same process.

Gaiman has written a book that reads like a half-remembered fairy tale from childhood. It has the easy flow of a story already heard, deeply known, and slots perfectly into the canon of British magical fiction. But it also feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams. For a book that plays so constantly with memory, perhaps that’s appropriate.

Alex Hern is a staff writer for Newstatesman.com

Out of the blue: Gaiman writes of myths and magic. Photograph: Millenium Images, UK

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem