The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Published: William Morrow Books, 2013
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Oh, Neil Gaiman. Every book of yours that I’ve read has further convinced me that your writing style and my reading preferences are just not going to mesh. And so, after reading your most recent release, I am going to respectfully refrain from reading other books of yours in the future. While I admire all you’ve accomplished as a writer, I have to admit that you’re just not the right writer for this reader.
After returning to the area where he grew up to attend a family member’s funeral, an unnamed man cannot resist the draw to drive past his home and visit the house of Lettie Hempstock, the mysterious girl he befriended nearly four decades ago. But Lettie is not at home. An older woman - who the man reasons must be her mother - says that Lettie hasn’t returned. Being in the house and wandering around outside to the pond that Lettie referred to as an ocean allows the man’s long-hidden memories to slowly surface, memories about an opal miner, a sinister housekeeper named Ursula Monkton, and other, stranger beings who wished to cohabit the Earth.
More than anything else, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a study in nostalgia. Besides a brief beginning and introduction focusing on the protagonist in the current day, the rest of the story takes place over a short span of time when the protagonist was seven years old. The protagonist is never even given a name, but tying him down with a concrete identity is simply not necessary. His purpose in returning to see his home and the home of the Hempstocks is ostensibly curiosity, but there’s a deeper pull driving him forward, one that he cannot quite grasp.
All he knows is that adulthood lacks the magic of childhood, the sense of wonder and belief in all sorts of things, no matter how farfetched.
Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrete, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?
And, as can be expected from Gaiman’s dark, quirky writing, the protagonist’s childhood was literally one full of magic. After all, only Gaiman could turn a story essentially about the nostalgia that accompanies growing up and add in some vengeful otherworldly monsters as a complication (and, perhaps, as a metaphor for the difficulties that one has to face in order to grow up). The parts where the protagonists reminisces about the differences between how he viewed adulthood while still a child are thought-provoking, but they don’t seem to be drawn-out nearly as much as they should be. They’re glimmers as fleeting as the protagonist’s memories of his past.
There’s a lingering grief also present in this novel. Although the protagonist is able to remember all the fantastical experiences he had with Lettie, readers know that the memories are going to fade back into his subconscious, as they have done before. This isn’t the first time that the protagonist has been back to see the Hempstock family, and nor will it be the last. The nostalgia present is pure and unadulterated and sadder for it, for the protagonist is doomed to forever repeat those feelings without ever being able to truly learn from them.
Although The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story that contains many of Gaiman’s signature elements, it still feels incomplete. Little is resolved at the end of the story - which, admittedly, might be the point - but beyond that the story felt rushed, with not enough pages devoted to really teasing out the threads of this story about childhood fears and nostalgia. This story was originally conceived as a short story, and it shows. At 178 pages, The Ocean at the End of the Lane straddles the line between novellas and novels, not quite successful enough to be accurately labeled as either.
Fans of Neil Gaiman will be sure to find lots to love in his newest work, but it’s not something I see really drawing in new fans. It’s overly ambitious in what it seeks to accomplish in such a short span of pages and not quite as magical as what Gaiman has proven he’s capable of writing. At least, not for this reader.
Rating: 2 stars