Recipe for a “Great Dark Birthday Cake”

In the eyes of a child even a small pond can seem an ocean.
In the eyes of a child even a small pond can seem an ocean.

Shuffle the deck of time and space.
Stir in a cup of memory, a teaspoon of hope.
Add two cups of terror,
one stick of courage and a teaspoon of tears.
Beat in two or three hearts.
Bake in moonlight until shimmering with stars.

And there you have it. A recipe for an adult novel by Neil Gaiman.

In the last thirty years the dean of darkly romantic graphic comics and adult fairytales has proven that he can write about anything. Love, torture, family dynamics, urban decay, pastoral bliss, you name it. And all with the lyrical touch of a natural bard.

In his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, touted as his first “adult” novel after years of putting out works mainly for young readers, Gaiman returns to his strong suit. The Ocean is a mythic tale of childhood fear that reinterprets the trope of the evil nanny, setting it in terms of interdimensional magic and horror.

Gaiman so vividly captures the sense of peril that lurks beneath the supposedly carefree time of childhood that I found I couldn’t read it just before going to bed. I made time for daylight reading in order to finish it the first time. Then I had to go back and reread the last two chapters to run my mental fingers over the scar. It’s not a story I’ll forget.

But most of all I want to remember the ending. Gaiman writes with a poetic lyricism that makes me stop every few pages to savor a line, an image: “The cloudless sky was splashed with stars beyond all counting.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably not a book for young readers. But anyone who has survived being young can relate to the seven-year-old protagonist’s struggle to understand what is happening and to find a way to stop the threat to himself and his family.

Gaiman balances the darkness in his novels with an almost palpable sense of security. As the little boy recalls being in the home of the wise woman who helps him: “I felt safe. It was as if the essence of grandmotherliness had been condensed into that one place, that one time.”

Not every child is granted such a gift of emotional safety. We live in world where monsters prey upon children every day. The world changes constantly; still it hasn’t changed enough.

Gaiman reminds us that there is work to do, but he does more than that. He sprinkles stardust to light the path out of darkness. He invites us to explore “patterns and gates and paths beyond the real.”

But you might want to bring a flashlight.

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