28 June 2013

I've read an ebook! And I’ve reviewed “The Ocean at the end of the Lane”!

I’ve always been stridently anti e-book. I want to fill my shelves with hardbacks: I don’t recognise the idea of “too many books” and I want to support local bookshops.

But - I’d ordered the new Neil Gaiman book (review below, but in short, it’s super) and moreover I’d ordered a signed, slipcase edition from Goldsboro because I felt like indulging myself.  Once I’d unwrapped it from the yards and yards of bubble wrap, I thought: you can’t take this on the train.  You can stuff it in your pannier and cycle across London with it. I’m not normally that precious about my books – I buy hardbacks and I open them and read them, I don’t usually keep them pristine on my shelves.  But.  This one was different.  (I think it was the slipcase.  The thought of taking the book out of it and putting it on the seat next to me, which some stranger had been sitting on…)

So I had to get a reading copy.  And I thought, why not, this time, try e-reading it?  If I’d bought a second physical copy I’d then have to argue with myself about keeping that or giving it away, so I downloaded it onto my iPad.  And read it. In public.

That was interesting.  It wasn’t a jolt to read on screen, but there were aspects of it that felt different – some good, some bad.  Yes, it was handy that the iPad kept track of my place. On the other hand, it felt very slight in my hands.  Coming home in the evening there were no spare seats so I sat on the floor (that happened 2 or 3 times a week).  Without the familiar bulk of a hardback I found it hard to hold the thing in the right place.  There was also the lack of feedback from turned pages to know how far I’d got – the pagecount told me, of course, but I had to look at that deliberately.

There was one real positive, though.  That day I went to give blood.  I found the iPad much easier to read while lying down, left arm tubed up and having to wiggle my hand – especially as I could turn the pages one handed, and the “book” didn’t keep trying to close itself.

Overall, I think I can see the attraction of these devices.  I don’t think they’re for me – I just like paper more – but they have their uses. 

Now, turning to the book itself, it is a deceptively simple story. The unnamed narrator relates, some 30 or 40 years later, experiences that happened to him as a boy aged seven. Meeting a girl slightly older (or a great deal older - "how long had she been eleven?") he is drawn into a strange reality, somewhere outside this world, and encounters a threatening presence (in a nod, perhaps, to M R James, this appears as a mass of dirty, flapping cloths) which then disrupts his secure family. The threat is eventually dealt with, but there is, of course, a price to be paid and a sense - possibly - that things are never the same.

While things may be told from an adult's recollection, this book is excellent at conveying a child's experience: the arbitrariness of the adult world which makes magical goings-on down the lane and the weird behaviour of one's parent equally expected (or unexpected), the aloofness of an unhappy child who takes refuge in his books. There is, at the same time, a mythic quality - as I've said, the narrator isn't named, but nor are his sister or parents, or the lodger - "the opal miner" - who sets off the chain of events described here. Indeed, the only people who are named here are those with connections to that mysterious, otherly world - in particular, the Hempstock women, grandmother, daughter and granddaughter Lettie who are definitely "otherly", and dangerous, but as friendly and comforting as fresh-baked bread. (Food is important here. The boy goes hungry because he will not eat the food provided by his unsettling governess. The opal miner's appearance is associated with powdery instant coffee. When our hero appears at the Hempstocks' farmhouse, he is, like Mole seeking refuge with Badger in the Wild Wood, restored with hearty, basic food - honeycomb, porridge and cream).

Being told from a child's perspective, a great deal else is hinted at but never detailed - money troubles and parental chilliness, a sense of suspended loss about what came after the story ended. Even the adult life of our grown up narrator is vague - he's come back home for a funeral, but we never learn whose. Women are important - powerful, though not always benevolent - men absent (there were Hempstock men, but they have gone away) or troubled (the miner, the boy's father).

While about a child, it isn't a children's book. It has some scenes, including aspects of horror, that wouldn't suit a child at all. But it does have deep compassion - for the boy, his parents, even for the "monster" which has to go back but isn't, despite its streaks of malice, essentially evil.

An absolutely superb book - Gaiman balances fantasy and reality deftly, playing them off against one another and producing a wonderful synthesis.

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