The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

It was a pleasure to read Neil Gaiman’s . The winner of the 2013 National Book Awards Book of the Year and New York Times Number one best seller became an immediate classic in the fantasy genre. Gaiman has always been wonderful with his writing. His novels re91E3iOgMa6L._SL1500_ad like a complex stream of consciousness from the innermost thoughts of a living Peter Pan, a man who has figuratively never grown up.

 personifies that perspective literally. The novel follows an unnamed first person narrator who, in his forties, decides to escape from the solemnity of a funeral to visit his childhood home and the home of a childhood friend of his, Lettie Hempstock, who is apparently living in Australia. Snippets of the protagonist’s memory leak through into his mind and as he nears a small duck pond near Lettie’s house he remembers his story in its entirety. The Ocean, as Lettie dubs the duck pond, holds far more than just water.

As a child the protagonist is unhappy, yet finds escape in his older friend, Lettie. After an opal miner lodging with them breaks into his father’s car and commits suicide in it, opening a door to another world outside the boy’s house. Lettie sets out to seal the hole but a creature gets through and wreaks havoc on the boy’s life while attempting to please everyone else. The novel is purely magical. The writing is enchanting and the style is innocent. All too often you feel that the protagonist as a child lives in between two worlds, neither of which he can understand. The result of which is what Gaiman sets out for: “I hope, at its heart, it’s a novel about survival.”

There really isn’t much in a negative light that I can say about Ocean. The characterisation is as deep as Lettie’s ocean and the storyline weaves in and out of the supernatural and the harrowingly realistic. It plays with themes of life and magic in a magic realist universe and does so exceedingly well. An awoken supernatural being which is only known as what she really is to the protagonist plays with both her demonic nature and delves into the weakness of the human will. In the form of Ursula Monkton, the boy and his sister’s live in nanny and governess, she is a perfectly dissolved solution of seduction, malice and the paranormal. The boy’s parents are the typical bewildered adults, akin to those of the Lewisian universe, who don’t have the imagination to know what is really going on in their own child’s life. The story as a whole is a re-reader and one I am sure you can get more out of every time you read it. It’s a comfortable narrative, one which you can pick up, put down, really think about and overall enjoy.

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The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

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As melancholy as he looks, when depicted on the cover of the 2008 Penguin edition of The Day of the Triffids, Bill Masen is one of the most brazen characters I have seen portrayed in writing. John Wyndham’s best known novel certainly deserves the recognition that is has achieved, and the characterisation is one of its major strengths.

We follow Bill Masen through the streets of London and beyond in the aftermath of a global disaster where a glowing meteor-filled sky rendered all but a few people blind. Bill, naturally, is one of these people. He meets estranged chick-lit novelist Josella and together they seek out refuge. All the while, Triffids, tripodal walking plants with fatal stings on top of thick stems round up the blinded humans and mercilessly slaughter them. One thing I might add is the odd choice of title: The Day of the Triffids. There is of course a significant day, but that causes mass blindness. The triffids themselves eke into the novel gradually before becoming an outright plague. Most of the characters, the obviously intuitive Bill Masen excluded, seem to have no idea about how dangerous the triffids are. It leads to a trust relationship being formed between reader and protagonist. Bill Masen is apparently the most knowledgeable man in the country and everything he says becomes almost gospel to the reader, particularly when it is disregarded by his fellow characters.

The Day of the Triffids is a classic cozy catastrophe, where the protagonists rarely find themselves in any real danger, either through luck, strength or intelligence – they always seem to pull through uninjured. Regardless, the novel cannot be called anything but classic. It is one of the most renowned science fiction stories that has ever been written. Wyndham, despite not putting his protagonists in direct peril, certainly works hard to build an effective and absorbing atmosphere. The situation seems oddly believable and the solutions to problems equally so. It’s obvious a lot of thought has been put into this vision of catastrophe. Unfortunately its civility also holds it back. A cozy catastrophe is so much less than a tragic incident. There is no real loss, pain or grief saving the brutal murder of Josella’s entire family, which she seems to be over within a day or two. Where the atmosphere, build up and situation seem so realistic, the characters seem almost overly headstrong considering it. The blind are often depicted as suicidal, but the sighted ones are hardened to the entire affair. While Bill is inherently affected by this tragedy, he rarely gives himself time for reflection, there is always a plan in his head and survival is a key part of that plan. He’s an inspiring character and cares when he needs to care, but it is quickly established that for the blinded masses, there is only so much a man can do.

Wyndham also is inexplicably anti-American. There is an attitude among some of the characters that there will be Americans coming to save the day – published, as this was, ten years after The Second World War. However these characters are usually and immediately rebutted. There is an overbearing sense of British ‘pluck,’ but I think it almost goes too far. The triffids are creepy if a little comical but I feel a little more fear wouldn’t hurt.

It’s a book everyone should read, yes, but in twenty years or so I think it’ll be past its prime. Bill Masen is a fascinating character and certainly a ‘leader,’ yet catastrophe fiction now often takes a far more bleak view on life and I doubt Bill would fit so nicely in it.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

First, an apology – a lot of life has happened in between this post and my last and as such I haven’t really kept my more regular posts promise up so far… But honestly that’s not been because I’ve not been reading, it’s just I’ve not finished reading anything until this morning, so here is a long belated post!

Audrey Niffenegger has a skill which I envy. She made an incredibly convincing storyline out of a normal character with a unique ability. The realism of it all is what really inspires me. Henry DeTamble is a time traveller. Not a voluntary time traveller but quite the opposite. Henry has a disorder which causes him to be temporally displaced into points of (usually) his own timeline, for example he meets his wife first when she is six and he is in his thirties. The novel follows him and his relationship with Clare, the six year old future wife. Henry and Clare have a unique relationship as you can probably imagine; Henry meets Clare for the first time when he is twenty-eight. Simultaneously this is, from Henry’s perspective, at least eight years before Clare meets Henry for the first time and from Clare’s perspective it is fourteen years later.

It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? But honestly, it’s not. Niffenegger helpfully signposts each section with a date, followed by how old Henry and Clare are.

“Friday, September 23, 1977 (Henry is 36, Clare is 6)”

A simple technique but it clears up the writing which would be impossible to follow without it. It also gives scope for hinting to the reader what will happen and whether Henry is time travelling when it happens – Henry in the present is always eight years older than Clare. The hints are subtle: (Henry is 15, and 15) when a fifteen year old Henry visits himself, but you have to read to find out how, where and when.

Niffenegger also deals very well with remarkably stressful situations, there are a lot of problems in the life of a man who suddenly vanishes and turns up naked, years away from where he left. He has to get through stressful times, such as his wedding, and sometimes very dark, weighty issues such as excessive contact with medicines of various different kinds, being arrested several times, miscarriage, pain, loss. When you think, you can agree – these are likely issues for a man with this disorder. That’s why the concept works so well, because the author has covered all the bases. She leaves no stone unturned and it paints the world beautifully.

Let me say once and for all I thought this book was great. Unfortunately was is the operative word. Niffenegger builds her characters seamlessly. She has mastered the technique of revealing parts of their lives at the exact moment they need to be revealed. There are plenty of surprises even though one of the characters is the definition of ‘spoiler.’ The problem I find is that this eventually catches up with the novel. The spoilers Henry keeps wittingly revealing to himself are also revealed to the reader. The end of the novel is foretold a good three quarters of the way through the book and it takes all the lustre out of it.

The end is the problem I have with this book. Everything is indeed well set up, the characters seem real, the situation seems real. It’s a stellar example of magic realism/science fiction. As you get to know the characters you begin to understand how they think. Niffeneger uses first person from both Clare and Henry so the reader gets in both of their heads. They are very deep characters. But the story’s end just doesn’t quite fit. I won’t spoil it (like Henry does), you’ll have to read it for yourself if you want to really know what I’m on about. What I will say is that as you would expect of a couple who marry, they eventually have a child. A girl, Alba. Alba is a wonderful character but I feel she is no made enough of. She appears quite late on (Henry is 38) or there abouts. She isn’t the protagonist but she does time travel. But we never find out where or when she goes. She just exists in the background as a small ray of hope amidst a dark world. But I feel that’s not enough for her. The other issue I have is with the events of the end. I don’t want to say they seem unrealistic, they just seem like they’ve been placed there to end the story. They don’t really fit and there’s no real explanation for it. The reader knows what will happen at the end but it leaves you with a feeling that you’ve been let down gently while the characters push what really happens under the rug to let it sit there forever.

I’d still recommend reading it, it’s truly fantastic. It’s not perfect, but it’s fantastic. The only thing I felt could have been better was the end but I honestly would say that it doesn’t matter. The whole book is an experience, and the concept and depth of character ensures that experience is interesting, exciting, tragic, funny and overall very enjoyable.