THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Niel Gaiman — a Review

While reading Neil Gaiman’s latest book, THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, I kept thinking about all it had in common with books like CORALINE or THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. It is a slim volume (coming in at under 200 pages), there is a child protagonist, and the story is told with an almost whimsical, fairy-tale like narration. But unlike those, this book is for adults, not younger readers.

It’s not because THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE contains sex and violence (although it does) or that younger readers wouldn’t understand the book (because they would), but because only adults are likely to appreciate the themes of the book: how childhood memories fade with age; the changes in interests, focus, and priorities; and how the sense of “home” changes after you’ve moved several times in your life.

This is the story of small tragedies becoming larger ones, and how we bounce back from them, or try to. It’s the story of the protagonist meeting three women–Lettie, Ginnie, and Old Mrs. Hempstock–and how they try to help him in his time of need. They offer perfect food, a sympathetic ear and a smile, and seemingly unrivaled knowledge. One gets a sense their farm has been there forever, and the universe grew up around it and them. But that’s not true, they came from across the ocean. Then again, that ocean is a pond behind their house. And like AMERICAN GODS, there is a magical world magic lying just under the surface of our world. And that magic seems at once miraculous and everyday, as only Gaiman writes it.

Anyone who had reminisced with a family member will know that no two people remember the exact same things the exact same way. Something happened, but we filter it differently, both in the short term and long term. That sense of reality versus interpretation, the real versus unreal, and the real versus not-quite-real all come into play with this book. The fact that some of the details from this book have been taken from Gaiman’s real childhood, while others were made up, adds another layer to the duality of this book.

Not only did I enjoy the themes of this book, I also enjoyed the voice of the protagonist. Gaiman has a talent for writing children’s voices, but this unnamed protagonist’s voice is also sometimes filtered through the mind of the adult man who is telling the story. As the story unfolds, the man comments on the memories, even as he relates them. Not only is this an interesting balance to pull off, but the protagonist (both old and young) tells the story with such honesty and love and fear that I couldn’t help but be moved by it.

There are a couple moments are a bit too cute for my liking, but they are minor quibbles I had with with was otherwise a lovely, if very short, book. In fact, this was originally supposed to be a short story, but it grew just a bit too big. I almost wish it had grown a bit more. It still felt too short to be a proper novel in my mind.

Nevertheless, this is a great summer read. If you don’t finish it on the beach, you (like me) will probably find yourself carrying it with you at all times to finish it as soon as you can (of course, this will not come as a surprise to anyone who is a Gaiman fan). But unlike most summer reads, this book will have you thinking back to your childhood, recalling memories long forgotten and the child you used to be. And that’s Gaiman’s real talent: using fairy tales to trick you into thinking about big ideas and causing your heart to swell with emotion.

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