Posted by Christopher at 11.24pm
Nearly two years ago now, when my debut novel was published and I had my first ever book signing, I blogged about how I had bunked off school aged fourteen to see Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean sign copies of their debut graphic novel, Violent Cases, on what I imagine was Neil Gaiman's first ever signing tour. If you want to, you can read the blog post here.
This summer Neil Gaiman published his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and embarked on what he announced would be his final book signing tour. And this Wednesday Neil Gaiman will be in conversation with Philip Pullman at the Oxford Playhouse, with both authors signing books at the end of the evening. And I've got a ticket.
Needless to say, I'm rather excited. One of the highlights of my brief authorial career to date was when I appeared alongside Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival last year at an event to talk about the influence of Charles Dickens's work on children's fiction. Although I was too nervous to say more than a handful of words to him backstage before the event, on stage he showed a real generosity of spirit to myself and Jasmine Richards, the other debut author on the panel, and after the event, he very kindly signed my copy of Lyra's Oxford with best wishes for Penelope Tredwell and Twelve Minutes to Midnight! I'm currently halfway through his wonderful retellings of Grimm's folk tales and reading each story is like discovering a fresh stream in an ancient forest, his pellucid prose illuminating these familiar and half-forgotten tales in so many fascinating ways.
But before I began reading this, I was immersed in the pages of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and, to be honest, I think I'm still recovering from this. Halfway through the first chapter, I almost put the book down and didn't think that I was going to be able to read it to the end. Not because it is a bad book, far from it; but to borrow the words of a fellow Mancunian, it was too close to home and too near the bone...
The first book of Neil Gaiman's I ever read was Violent Cases, a story where the adult narrator looks back on events from his childhood, recalling through a haze of distance and memory, a confusing world where adults lied and cruelty seems a common currency. When I read this as a teenager, the story sang to me, even though I probably didn't fully understand every detail of the tale contained in its pages. Fast forward twenty-five years and I'm reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a story where the unnamed adult narrator returns to his old hometown for the funeral of his father, and, from there, drives to find the ocean at the end of the lane and begins to recall exactly what happened to him when he was a boy. But unlike the narrator of Violent Cases, the narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane recounts the events of his youth with a crystal-clear clarity: the loneliness and the unhappiness, the refuge he found in the books he read, and above all, the darkness. As I turned the pages I felt as though I was reading the book through two pairs of eyes: the eyes of my adult self, and the boy I once was. But as Lettie Hempstock says in the pages of the story "The truth is there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world."
I won't say anymore about this remarkable novel, but if you haven't read it, I'd strongly urge you to do so. And on Wednesday evening I'm looking forward to seeing Neil Gaiman in conversation with Philip Pullman, and I hope that I get the chance to say thank you.