I’ve read and enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (and I’m a huge fan of the two episodes of Doctor Who that he wrote). He has a style and approach that’s impossible to nail down so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But then, that’s an enormous part of the fun of reading Neil Gaiman’s work.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins with a man reflecting on the magic of his childhood except that in his case, some of it may have been literal. His parents took in lodgers to ease money problems when he was younger. When one man steals the family car and commits suicide, a series of events is set in motion that stretches the young boy’s imagination. Though his new friend, Lettie, appears to be only a few years older than him, Lettie, her mother, and grandmother are not what they appear to be. But watching what they’re capable of doesn’t make what they are any clearer.
While there are fantasy elements at play in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it is far from a traditional fantasy tale. It’s not an epic but it’s not playfully childish either. It doesn’t have vampires or werewolves or really any of the fantasy creatures that have dominated popular literature, film, and television in the last five to ten years. Those mythical beings that do appear are largely ambiguous, and that ambiguity makes them more powerful, more terrifying than something whose appearance and limitations are familiar or clichéd.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane resides in the space between fantasy and horror where nightmares come to life. Even though the narrator is an adult reflecting on his childhood experience, it is this younger self that guides the reader through events. His status as an ordinary and largely friendless child places him in the ideal position to observe and report. He is young enough to believe the things he sees but also too young to understand the larger implications of what happens around him. Occasionally his adult self makes comments, but it’s mostly left in the words of a seven year old struggling to make sense of a living nightmare.
I found The Ocean at the End of the Lane to be refreshing and menacing. I think I’ve been reading too many trilogies and series lately. I had almost forgotten what a stand-alone novel could do to you as a reader. With an uncertain but mildly hopeful ending, The Ocean at the End of the Lane manages to capture the frustrations of being a child surrounded by placating adults, the true terror of powerlessness, and the blind faith children demonstrate in friendship. Ultimately, I’m not sure what to say about The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It isn’t something everyone will enjoy but I’m glad that I read it and I found it compelling. It is a perfect demonstration of the essence of Neil Gaiman: a little odd, kind of dark, deep without straining to be so, but interesting and something you’ll feel compelled to return to, if only to have another shot at figuring it out.