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Casting a spell

Master of the magical creates an uncanny world of wonder in short novel

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There are few, if any, writers who have managed as successful a career as Neil Gaiman has in as many media and genres, from comics, novels and children's literature to television, films and social media.

And, as his new book reminds us, few writers have his talent at being broadly accessible and profoundly disquieting at the same time.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the British-born Gaiman's fourth novel for adults, is really more of a long short story. Other than the prologue and epilogue, the book describes, in a linear fashion, an episode in the unnamed narrator's youth, beginning with the suicide of a boarder in his parents' car and ending with the near-aversion of a minor apocalypse. Closer to light horror than fantasy, it reads like Roald Dahl filtered through Stephen King.

With the boarder's suicide, the seven-year-old narrator is initiated into a world of myth and magic, a world tended and policed by the Hempstocks, three female neighbours whose property contains the pond, which is also an ocean, that gives the book its name.

The three Hempstocks are Old Mrs. Hempstock, Mrs. Hempstock, and Lettie Hempstock, who has been one year old for "a really long time."

It is Lettie who introduces the narrator to the world of magic that surrounds him, a world whose formerly stable border with the narrator's mundane world has been ruptured by the suicide.

Taking the narrator with her, Lettie crosses over into the world of magic in order to contain a creature that has infiltrated the narrator's village in rural Sussex and has set about aggressively and dangerously flooding the area with money.

The mission goes awry, and the creature attaches itself to the narrator through the sole of his foot. It then manifests itself in the form of Ursula Monkton, a nanny who is monstrous in the insidious, imperceptible-to-adults way that literary nannies and stepmothers so often are.

Ursula sets about to seduce the narrator's family, emotionally and sexually. Under her spell, the family turns against the narrator, who is forced to flee to seek help from his mysterious neighbours.

What follows is an extended confrontation between opposing forces of order and chaos. One of Gaiman's great strengths as a writer is his ability to depict an uncanny world of magic and mystery that is separated from our own by a thin tissue of wilful ignorance.

As in many of his other stories, the realm of magic in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is both a place and a way of seeing the world. Through the eyes of the young narrator, the mythic and the everyday intermix matter-of-factly, and mundane household tasks such as cooking, mending and fetching water take on a significance that belies their apparent simplicity.

It is in Gaiman's child protagonist that he makes what could otherwise have been a slight book feel substantial. Through his often uncomprehending narration, we catch a glimpse of a world of wonder that is lost to us as adults, a world in which a pond that is an ocean can be carried in a bucket and in which calling something magical makes it so.

But as the framing prologue and epilogue tell us, it is a world that is always lost to us, a way of being and seeing that periodically floats to the surface only to be weighed down by adult desires and responsibilities.

For all that, though, something remains; though the childhood home may have been demolished, and the village turned to suburb, at its heart the pond, which is an ocean, remains.

Brandon Christopher is an assistant professor in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 A1

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