The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman


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The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the third Neil Gaiman book I’ve read. I’ve heard people whose taste in books I admire rave about him; I’ve enjoyed articles he’s written that I’ve read online; I adored his nerd-rockstar surprise appearance in last year’s Evening of Awesome. But as for his actual books — well, the first Gaiman I picked up, on a friend’s recommendation, was American Gods, and I could not get into it. Just didn’t like it much at all. Then I read Stardust after seeing the movie, and thought it was a great little fairy tale, although it’s one of the very rare cases when I have to say I liked the movie better than the book. Probably just because the book doesn’t have Robert de Niro as a cross-dressing sky pirate, though.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is also best described, perhaps, as a fairy tale, though one rooted in the everyday world. A middle-aged man goes back to his childhood home in Sussex for a family funeral (we don’t find out whose, exactly; presumably one of his parents). Unable to face the after-service get-together at his sister’s house, he drives back to his old home — not to the house he lived in as a child, which is no longer standing, but to the house at the end of the lane, where a girl called Lettie Hempstead used to live with her mother and grandmother, in a farmhouse behind which was a small pond that Lettie claimed was an ocean.

That’s about all the narrator remembers when he sets foot on the property — except for a vague memory that Lettie moved away somewhere, possibly Australia. But as he sits and looks out at the “ocean,” memory rises up and he is again seven years old. The sudden and violent death of a stranger who briefly boarded in his family’s house plunges the boy into an unexpected and unearthly series of events, in which the only people he can trust are the three Hempstead women, who are very obviously the archetypal Maiden, Mother and Crone who guide the boy through a terrifying encounter with an evil alien power. This is a novel in which the childhood loss of innocence is played out on a mythic scale. At the end of the story we are reminded that the main character is no longer a child but a man who has lived forty years of his life — marriage, parenthood, divorce, career, loss — since the events of his childhood fairy-tale unfolded. His story ended, as all true stories do, not with a happily-ever-after but with what we all get: one ordinary human life. What he wants to know is — has it been worthwhile? Has the life he’s lived been worthy of the long-ago sacrifices that were required to save that life?

It’s everyone’s question, really, which may be why the narrator is unnamed. Whether or not you believe a divine being has literally sacrificed him or herself for you — as most Christians believe, and as, in a somewhat more pagan way, Gaiman’s Everyman believes — we all launch out into our lives with a burdensome weight of hope, dreams, expectation and sacrifice behind us. We may be aware of it; we may not. For much of his life, the main character here is unaware, because he forgets, over and over, what happened when he was seven years old. But when he remembers, he needs to know if his life has been worth saving. And that, of course, is the question no-one can answer for him.

Sorry, I got a bit philosophical there at the end, but this is a novel that, while on one level a short and childish fantasy, is deeply thought-provoking. It provoked me to think as well as propelling me forward through an engaging and creepy story, and I think it will linger with me for awhile.

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Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky

whirlawayRussell Wangersky’s collection Whirl Away is the second short-story collection I’ve read this year, which is something of a record for me, and like the other collection (Ed Kavanagh’s Strays) I thoroughly enjoyed it. Wangersky is a master of using language: every phrase and sentence seems perfectly polished. But the beauty of his writing never distracts from the characters in the stories and the dark, often painful situations they face. Weeks after reading this collection, two of the stories still haunt me; both are, in a way, about domestic violence, but in each case the situation is approached from a perspective you wouldn’t normally see, and it makes the sadly familiar suddenly chilling. In “Echo,” a five-year-old (possibly autistic?) child suffers from echolalia and can only repeat the words he hears his parents exchange: coming from a child’s mouth those words tell a frightening story. In “Look Away” an isolated man in an isolated place — a lighthouse keeper — is frustrated with his wife and children; only as the story unfolds does the reader grasp that the lighthouse-keeper’s perception and his reality are two very different things. 

If you love a well-constructed short story that captures a slice of time and human experience so vividly you won’t be able to shake it off — or if, like me, you’re skeptical about short stories but would like to try a few — pick up Whirl Away. You may be haunted, but you won’t regret it.

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The Islands of Doctor Thomas, by Francoise Enguehard

islandsdoctorthomasThis slim novel, set mostly in the French islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon off Newfoundland’s south coast, tells the story of a collection of decades-old photographs taken by a doctor who came to the islands in the early 1900s and used his camera to record the life of the community he saw around him. The photographs are discovered by Francois, a middle-aged architect who now lives in France but returns to his St. Pierre homeland for frequent visits, and Emilie, the teenaged daughter of Francois’s childhood friends. Francois and Emilie feel a strong affinity both for each other and for the photographs, and dedicate themselves to curating the collection, sharing it with others, and finding out more about the mysterious Doctor Thomas. Pieces of his story are imagined by Emilie, who aspires to be a writer, as a sort of novel-within-the-novel.

The material is interesting and the glimpse into St. Pierre culture intriguing — like many Newfoundlanders I know far too little about these islands, which still belong to France, despite how close they are to our shores. But the novel is so short that many potentially interesting elements of character development — especially the nature of the tie that binds Emilie and Francois — are left only as hasty sketches rather than fleshed out in vivid colour, and there is very little in the way of a strong plot to pull the reader forward. This was definitely one of those books that left me wanting much more.

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Wakeworld, by Kerry Schafer

SchaferWakeworld is the sequel to Kerry Schafer’s powerful 2013 fantasy debut, Between. It’s the second in a trilogy and any review of it should include the caveats that normally come with reading the middle volume of three: you really should read Between if you don’t want to feel like you’ve been tossed into the deep end figuring out what’s going on, and you shouldn’t expect a resolution at the end of this book. Rather, you’re drawn forward, wanting to read more.

The Between series is sometimes categorized as “urban fiction,” though it’s only “urban” if your definition of urban stretches to include small towns like Krebston, where Vivian Maylor once lived a relatively normal life as an ER doctor. How she got pulled out of that life by the discovery of her ability to move between the world of dreams and everyday reality — is told in the first book. In Wakeworld, Vivian spends most of the story dealing with the ongoing problems caused by a breach between the two worlds. Little details like dragons showing up on beaches in the “real” world — things like that.

In her adventures, kick-ass heroine Vivian is joined by the man she loves, Zee, who’s a sensitive (if someone violence-prone) artist in the real world, but a fierce dragon-slaying warrior in the other reality. Which is a both a good thing — who doesn’t want a hot dragon-slaying warrior on your side in a battle with evil forces? — and also a problem. You see, due to earlier misadventures, Vivian is, well, a little bit part dragon, and has the tendency to morph into a dragon at times. And a love match between a dragon-killer and a part-dragon woman can never be anything but star-crossed.

If that thumbnail sketch is enough to get you curious, pick up Between and Wakeworld and get busy reading now. Then you can sit around and wait for Schafer to release the next volume!

 

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Every Little Thing, by Chad Pelley

everylittlethingI’ve read most of the fiction published in Newfoundland over the last two years, and of all the books I’ve read, whether by “big name” writers or relative unknowns, whether considered “literary” or “commercial” fiction, Chad Pelley’s Every Little Thing was by far the book that kept me turning the pages most quickly, eager to find out what happened to his characters. His main character and first-person narrator, Cohen Davis, is in prison as the novel opens, and tells the story of how he got there in a series of flashbacks. Even moreso than Lisa Moore’s antihero David Slaney in CaughtCohen Davis is an unlikely prisoner, a highly educated and thoughtful young man, and the reader is naturally interested to find out about the crime that landed him in jail. His story goes back several years to a tragic death in his family, and indeed there’s tragedy piled on tragedy in this story — disease and disability, multiple assaults, deaths both accidental and violent, love and betrayal. There’s a woman at the centre of it all, of course, Cohen’s ex-girlfriend Allie Crosbie, who comes into his life on the heels of one tragedy and is driven out of his life by another. And guiding us through his story is Cohen, a nebbishy everyman with a keen intellect but frequently poor judgement.

I really liked Cohen and I liked the way the story unfolded. I liked the way Pelley avoids the easy and too-obvious resolution at a few points in the story, even though that left me with an ending bleaker than I was happy with. I was caught up enough in the story that I was only able to judge its flaws only on reflection, after finishing the story. One major gap in the story is the lack of any strong sense of place: it’s set somewhere in Atlantic Canada, but the details are vague enough that it could be anywhere in Newfoundland (though the geography doesn’t fit easily with that of this island), or in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. Only a few scenes set on a trip to Halifax feel genuinely grounded in a real landscape, as specific and recognizable places in Halifax play a role in that part of the story. Another weakness is that Allie, while fun to read about in her scenes with Cohen, is very much an “alluring woman” as filtered through a male gaze (whether that of Cohen the narrator or Pelley the writer, I’m not entirely sure); if you look at her as a separate character it’s hard to understand what motivates Allie at certain crucial points in the book, and her characterization doesn’t always seem consistent. That said, though the book has its flaws, I found it highly readable and far more compelling than Pelley’s debut novel, Away from Everywhere. I finished it in less than a day and was never bored, which to be honest is more than I can say for a lot of literary fiction. 

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Strays, by Ed Kavanagh

straysI don’t normally gravitate towards short story collections — give me a good, meaty novel I can get lost in! — but this collection by Ed Kavanagh really drew me in from the very first story. This is Kavanagh’s first book since his award-winning The Confessions of Nipper Mooney more than 10 years ago, and the time and effort he’s put into crafting these stories really shows. His characters are outsiders, people on the margins, and there are moments of striking clarity and compassion in every story. The longest piece in the collection, “The Strayaway Child,” is the only one not set in the present or recent past, and it draws such an evocative picture of a threadbare childhood in Depression-era Newfoundland that I wished this one were a novel — it would probably be one of my favourite novels of the year. But as a short story collection, this is a book not to be missed.

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The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler

imposterbirdeThis was a really great premise and, for most of the novel, a richly-realized piece of historical fiction. It reminded me a little of Amy Bloom’s Away, though The Imposter Bride is set about twenty years later and in Canada rather than the US. Both novels feature young Jewish women named Lily/Lillian who emigrate to North America after horrific experiences in Eastern Europe that have left them deeply scarred. Lily Azerov’s biggest secret is that she isn’t Lily Azerov; she stole that name and identity from another woman. Arriving in Montreal, she’s rejected by the young man who had arranged to marry her sight-unseen, but then marries his brother instead. But soon after having a baby, Lily finds herself unable to stay in the new life she’s created under her new identity and makes a decision that will impact not only her husband and daughter but their whole extended family.

It’s a great set-up; it totally pulled me in and made me want to find out how things all worked out. Most of the story is actually told from the point of view of Lily’s daughter, Ruth, who tries to piece together hints and clues about her mother’s past and present life. The novel sets up a wonderful, intriguing, character-driven mystery — and then fails to deliver on its promises in the final chapters. A lot of questions have been raised throughout the first part of the novel; I could accept that at the end, we wouldn’t like the answers we got — but to not get them at all was frustrating. Although this novel was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and certainly deserved that on the basis of its writing, I found the ending a big disappointment. Not every reader will agree, and if the premised pulls you in, by all means go ahead and read it. If you disagree with me about the ending let me know in comments!

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