I’m leaving the actual bookish reviews of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to the fine folks over at Book Riot. Instead, I’m looking at the food, a rather surprising supporting character in this delightful little book, but one that, yes, enhances and adds a layer of depth to the whole story that would have been missing if it was not there.
(For the record though, OMG, Neil Gaiman is still so brilliant. He’s like those great bowls of nachos that you get. It’s just nachos but as you venture down into the layers of nachos, you realize there’s so much MORE going on there. Crisp chips against melty cheese soggy chips. Beans tucked into pockets with jalapenos. Childhood loss and disillusionment alongside the trickeries of magic. Wait. Not that last bit, at least not in the nachos. Anyways…)
First off. There is a lot of food.
In the book, Gaiman manages to zoom in on one small section of the world, just two families, and show how one changes in the space of a few days. Like I said earlier, it’s a small book and so each description has to scratch past that first layer. He does this the best with food. The two families–the narrator’s family and the Hempstocks–become real by seeing what they serve on their tables and how they interact around those tables.
With the narrator’s family, a prim, straight-laced family where the drama happens below the surface, we see the same food gracing the table that graces the table of any prim, straight-laced family. Brown bread burned into toast. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Lovely, fine food, though nondescript and unattached to the land or time.
When the narrator meets the Hempstock’s, a family of women who are unattached to time themselves, we get some of the best food writing of the book. What the women represent–magic, a time before innocence, the “old world”–comes out in the food. Take this for example, perhaps the best description of milk I’ve ever read.
“The old lady gave me a cup of creamy milk from Bessie the cow, the fresh milk before it had gone through the cooler. Nothing I had drunk had ever tasted like that before: rich and warm and perfectly happy in my mouth. I remembered the milk after I had forgotten everything else.”
Perfectly happy in my mouth… *Stands and applauds Mr. Gaiman.*
Or what about this beautiful moment of cooking?
“Lettie cooked us pancakes on a big metal griddle, on the kitchen stove. They were paper-thin, and as each pancake was done Lettie would squeeze lemon onto it, and plop a blob of plum jam into the center, and roll it tightly, like a cigar.”
The food, while old-fashioned, is new for the narrator and, honestly, new for the modern audience reading it. My stomach rumbled more than once reading about the clotted cream, or roasted carrots, or porridge that spoke of older times. With this food, so close to the source of its creation, there is a certain magic tied to it. A magic perhaps lost with our food now. A magic the narrator was able to find with the Hempstock family. A magic we can find as we read it.
Have you read The Ocean at the End of the Lane or any other of Gaiman’s works? Am I missing any more drool-worthy descriptions from the book?