Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

When I was 9, I was invited to a birthday party. It was my
neighbour Vivek's 6th birthday. His parents had invited a whole
bunch of kids from the neighbourhood. There was a birthday cake
and we all sang "Happy Birthday to You." Afterwards, there was
cake and chips and orange squash for everybody. There were games.
That night, I crossed the street and returned home in a daze.

I made plans. I would call everyone in the street. I would
cajole my father - who, I thought, would never refuse me anything
- to get a cake. It would be white and pink and it would have
candles on it. I would blow them out as people sang "Happy
Birthday" to me. At some level, I seem to have understood orange
squash for everyone might be too much to ask for. But maybe
people would get me presents.

My birthday came. I pulled out an old shawl and laid it on the
floor, thinking it would make a good carpet. My mother asked me
what I thought was doing. I explained. In a few well-chosen
words, she told me not to be a fool. On my birthday, I would get
new clothes. I would go to the temple and pray that I would be a
good boy. She would make potatoes and lemon rasam. And that was
that. All that stuff about cakes and squash - we didn't do that
kind of thing. Now, I should stop thinking of all this
extravagance and go take my bath.

I did get new clothes, and my sister bought me a book, but I
still remember going to bed feeling gutted.

So where did all this come from? What triggered this
especially crappy memory of a especially crappy birthday?

There is an scene in Neil
Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane
where the narrator
talks about his seventh birthday, which "had consisted of a table
with iced biscuits and a blancmange and cake and fifteen empty
folding chairs."

Ocean is - hard to describe. It is a fantasy. There are shades
of Stephen King and Diana Wynne Jones (especially
The Pinhoe Egg
) in it. I don't know whether Gaiman put in
specific incidents from his own childhood - or just dreamed it
all up, but it seems very personal. It's probably the effect of
the first person narrator - the first time, I think Gaiman has
used one, but you also get the feeling that "this was true. this
happened. maybe not really in the same way it does in the book,
but close enough"

Spoilers, maybe

It reads like a fairy tale. But not one of those
happily-ever-after fairy tales.

Once upon a time, there was a boy. He didn't have many
friends, this boy, but he made friends with a strange girl. The
boy had a tough life, but he didn't know it. One day, the boy got
into trouble. Some of it was of his own doing. He was a
frightened little boy and frightened little boys don't always do
smart things. Some of it was because of things beyond his
control, and the adults in his life let him down. The girl saved
the boy, but it didn't end happily. The happiest thing about it
was that the boy forgot, but he also never forgot.

That is about the gist of it, but obviously, there's a great
deal more to the book than that. There are the narrator's
parents, and the boy's terror as they seem to drift apart; his
terror at his fathers anger. And there is Ursula Monkton, who
doesn't have to make you swallow bilgewater or cut your foot off
with an axe to be utterly terrifying. There are the hunger birds,
like The Dark Half's psychopomp sparrows. And there are the
Hempstocks - whoever or whatever they are.

There's no happy ending - but there is a possibility of hope.
Granny Weatherwax may believe that everything is a test, but
Mrs Hempstock says "You don't pass or fail being a person." As an
answer, its unsatisfying, but its also the only thing we get.

It's not a children's book, of course. Or atleast, it's not a
book that I would have read as a child. As a seven-year-old, I
was reading The Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys and Billy
Bunter and Enid Blyton. I doubt that I would have even enjoyed it
in my teens - when I was reading both Ludlum and "serious"
literature. But now, as a forty-three-year old, the book really
speaks to me, never more so when it comes to remembering an
imperfect childhood.

There's a line, "I was not happy as a child,although from time
to time, I was content." It's a simple line, a statement of fact,
but it ... resonates. And isn't that what art is about? Making
that connection?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. Will read the book.