Edition 10: Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Reviewed by Sophie Yorkston
It can be hard to delve back into childhood; our youthful minds cannot always interpret events that have a significance and adult context. Artfully, Neil Gaiman has carefully fostered the voice of his inner child, crafting The Ocean at the End of the Lane into an adult fairy tale.
Amanda Palmer, the performer who is Neil Gaiman’s wife, convinced me to pick up this book, by describing it as: “Neil started crafting a string of words that was like a long hand reaching out of his heart and across the void” (sic); Neil with the blender dialled down (more truth, less story). Having fallen in love with the raw moments in American Gods, I looked forward to a story filled with honesty. I was not disappointed.
It begins with a funeral, as adult events often do, where you end up searching for answers and for past comforts. He seeks out a childhood friend and returns to his memories as a young boy, not yet blinded by the scepticism of growing up. A series of events that start with the death of a lodger in his parents’ Mini, parked at the end of the lane, where he becomes embroiled in a much bigger, much older struggle. Luckily for him he has Lettie and the Hempstock women, his stalwart guardians and friends with the ocean pond.
The story is a blend of the fantastical and everyday, written mostly with the perspective of a 7-year-old, in whom those boundaries are not yet fixed. It dwells in the joys and fears of being small in an adult world, and in that innate way children are conducted by their feelings.
The way Neil Gaiman blended the pure voice of his youth with his adult voice, seeing through the metaphor, is stylistically entrancing. It does not feel dull, more like leaving soft and golden memories unsullied by the experiences and disappointments of adulthood. There are some moments where the adult comes through, but not intrusively, more like tip-toeing through a childhood game; just observing, not disturbing.
I found myself wondering which of the darker parts were reality for Neil, some described too vividly even for someone of his expansive imagination. How much we explain away as children with fantastical stories, memories we eventually paste over with adult context and understanding.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is definitely for adults, though for an early maturing teen it may be suitable. Some parts and characters are very nightmarish, and one night I found myself avoiding sleep for wordless fear of the darkness at the edge of my own subconscious, as if I’d regressed to that base fear of infancy. There are also some dark comments on the power all adults have over children and if you have any triggers related to abuse, please tread carefully with this one.
At the end of the novel, I felt quite bereft, at losing the end of the fairytale, and reminded of the passing of the unquestioning innocence of childhood, and the changes to sacred places of the heart. I would not say the story itself was ultimately sad, but Neil Gaiman has placed his loss between the lines, and so that was how it ended for me. Even so, I would not have traded the experience to once more be back in the land of youth, where the lines are blurred and we can believe in magic again.
Neil Gaiman is a writer that refuses to be bound by one style of media. He’s written for the silver screen, novels, children’s books, comic books, and articles. He also speaks regularly to fans and other writers across the world. You can find his website here, or find him on Twitter where he interacts regularly with his fans.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2013
Sophie is a scientist, aspiring writer, sci-fi and fantasy nerd. She is an editor with IFWG Publishing and has been Editor In Chief of SQ Mag and SQ Magazine, the previous incarnation. She also contributes book and film reviews. She is currently living in Vancouver, Canada.
You can find her in a few different places: @Smoph on Twitter, Sophie Yorkston – writer on Facebook, and at her blogs: Smoph’s Musings and Smoph Writes.