I recently read Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (in the beautiful Subterranean Press signed, limited edition, pictured here in its case. A birthday present for me.)
As many reviewers have noted, and as his wife has explained, the book is personal in a way that his other books, so far, have not been. As is so often the way with art that is personal for its creator, when it’s done well, it is personal for the reader/audience/viewer too. When I got to the last page, there was some part of me that was convinced he’d written the book for me. And, I am sure, for every other bookish kid out there who could not make the choice Susan Pevensie made (and which Susan Pevensie may very well have not made either.) For every kid for whom the pain of real life in childhood was all mixed up with the contents of our imaginations and still is a bit. For whom imagination was both the salve and the wound. We know that what is on the other side of the wardrobe is not escape — we always knew that notion of escapism was bullshit — but it is dark and dangerous and real in its way. It can’t be trusted. Aslan is not a tame lion.
That special kind of pain that survives in the adults who were once weird kids seems to be showing up in novels a lot these days. It’s there in The Magicians and its sequel, The Magician King, by Lev Grossman (the next one, The Magician’s Land, is coming soon.) The first time I read The Magicians, I was about two-thirds of the way through, enjoying it as a sort of fun read … and then it hit me. I saw what Grossman was doing and I literally sat up in bed and just stared at the book for a while. My thoughts, at that moment, ran something like this: Are we allowed to talk about this?
The “this”, the thing I meant, is something like a wound that never properly healed, that itches a little, like Frodo’s shoulder. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it’s a literal wound. The same is true, in a way, in the Hugo-winning Among Others by Jo Walton, which is also a book about a bookish child and the ways in which the other world is never quite what we need it to be. There is a current running under all these books, of unpredictability and even betrayal. Not that any of these books is anti-otherness, anti-faerie — not at all. They are in large part, about the positive effects of imagination. Jo Walton has called Among Others her love letter to SF fandom and it is a book about the gloriousness of books. In Grossman, Gaiman and Walton, imagination heals, but it’s a kind of healing that leaves something behind.
The closest analogy I can think of is in Robin McKinley’s novel The Hero and the Crown. When Luthe heals Aerin, he does it in a way that makes her not quite human, in the ordinary sense. Human enough, for most things, but there will always be some part of her that isn’t really paying attention.
If magic always comes with a price, I suppose there is a price we pay for the magic of stories. It’s interesting to see novelists tackle it through fiction this way. When I finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I turned over and looked at my 3-year-old, sleeping beside me. He’s a bookish kid, too; he lives in his imagination even more than I did. I don’t know what price he will have to pay for that magic. I do know it’s worth it.