The Ocean at the End of the Lane (click for my review) is about the child’s mind telling a story to that of the adult. It reaches back through memory and speaks in a language that children know much better, and many adults have forgotten. Fortunately, the Milk does the exact opposite of that. Cory Doctorow sums it up neatly in his review over at Boing Boing: “a magnificent tribute to the fatherly art of trolling kids with straightfaced, outlandish tales”.
Doctorow’s review does a great job of presenting the book, which is short enough that you could read it in less than an hour, anyway. Unless you are reading it to your kid, which will inevitably get you entangled, I imagine, in serious existential discussions, thus prodding you to contribute to the perpetuation of the art of kid-trolling.
Instead of going into the same kind of details concerning story, setting, etc., I just want to point out a few things. First off, Neil Gaiman is a magician when it comes to conjuring up worlds. I honestly can’t think of another author who can do that well so economically. By that I don’t mean that his writing is sparing or minimalist, or anything like that. Only that it is amazingly effective and efficient at making you believe in the reality it is describing. Even when the adventure is as hilariously absurd as the one in Fortunately, the Milk. It might be the language, the imagery, the myths, the setting, or the framing device as is the case here, but he will find the key to a story and he will trick you into surrender.
Also, I loved the way the story can be read from two points of view simultaneously. If you are a kid, you will naturally try to construe it as a true story (or expose it as fiction), just like the kids from the book. If you are an adult, though, you have to juggle. Slip into the kids’ minds for a moment, estimate the shininess/plausibility-factor, pull back into the storyteller’s head, narrowly avoid falling off that cliff, intuitively pick left or right (will they buy that? will they grow bored? oh, man.), then back again to trying to think the way they do…
Initially the dad uses the time-travelling gimmick just for the sake of throwing some pirates into the story, but that leaves him stranded in the past, walking the plank, and he has to use it again to save his own skin. Some pages later the story starts curling back onto itself – because that’s just awesome (the raison d’être of Doctor Who, methinks) – and then some more pages later it curls around again to pick up the stuff it left lying about the first time. All the while, you can tell the dad is not doing all that because he is an ass (he is a bit of an ass, but in a good way); he is doing it because the kids enjoy it too and because they allow the story to feel real for him as well.
Lastly, I really loved the character of the Milk. Well, it isn’t a character really, but it surely is the most important thing in the book. “Where there is milk, there is hope,” says Professor Steg, the dinosaur scientist and air balloon (Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier) explorer. All the time paradoxes, witty dialogues and suspenseful sequences revolve around the milk, as does the story itself. At the same time the milk is probably the most mundane thing in it. Milk is so predictable, but then again, you always run out of it and you can use it for so many things – drink it from the bottle, pour it over your cereal, add it into your cuppa tea, make yogurt or cheese out of it, use it as an excuse for some gossip time with the shopkeeper… You have to have a relationship with the milk, just as you have to use your imagination, or lose it. What better way to do that other than making up stories for kids? Fortunately, the milk provides the occasion.
Oh, I nearly forgot to say something about the illustrations. I read the US edition, with Scottie Young as the artist. From what I’ve seen and read on the web, the UK pictures (by Chris Riddell) feel a little bit more “grown-up”, possibly a little more Gaiman-ish. I’d love to read it as well, but the US one is wonderful as it is – the illustrations provide a great scaffold for the imagination, just enough to get it going full steam. So, what are you waiting for? Go save the milk!