Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
I can safely say that Neil Gaiman is my favorite living author. His writing is fantastic. His novels always have a wonderful turn of phrase and wit about them and are always somehow deeply magical. Gaiman’s novels are set in this world but it’s this world only if you kind of step a little to the left and squint. Because you can only see magic and the fantastical if you go a little out of focus. So, needless to say, I was very excited when news of a new book from him came out. (And completely bummed that his US signing tour wasn’t coming anywhere near me. Dang it.)
Honestly, I was a bit disappointed when I picked up The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s tiny. At only 178 pages long I was dubious of the book. There was no way a proper story could be told in such a small book, let alone one of Gaiman’s artful and whimsical creations. I was proven wrong. While The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not like most of Gaiman’s other books, it is still a complete story with excellent setting and characters. Gaiman’s greatest skill, I think, is in the creation of his characters. He writes children very well. He writes odd and weird very well. The Hempstock ladies are an example of that. Their oddness is so subtle that you’re not even sure you’re seeing it.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not the type of story I am used to seeing from Gaiman. This story is small and personal but the more I read the more the book became, not bigger, but denser. It had weight and is undeniably a story for adults and older teens. Gaiman has created something strange and peculiar and lovely here. It is childhood and how a child experiences and deals with several situations. (The loss of family wealth, his Father’s cheating and abuse, the childhood curse of being ‘different’ from other children.) He is a child and doesn’t understand but he has to deal with it just the same. To a seven year old little boy, magic is real and an eleven year old girl is powerful and wise. I was utterly fascinated.
Could a younger person read this? Well, yes. The story is exciting and scary fun. I’d have reservations about a kid reading this because of the scene where the main character’s Father tries to kill him (let’s not mince words here, the Father was trying to drown him no matter how our young narrator sees it). There is also one, tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sexual moment. But I also think that a young teen might not understand some of the underlying meaning. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about a child’s world and how that world is so different from an adult’s but at the same time it has this deeper tragedy and creepiness that can make a reader uncomfortable. I think that is where the true greatness of this book comes from, along with being a really great story on the surface, and if you can’t understand that then you kind of lose something.
At the end of reading a Gaiman book I always feel this sense of nostalgia and longing for the world he created and the characters I’ve been introduced to. I miss them because it was a world we used to live in, long ago, when we ourselves were children and before we made that horrible decision to grow up. It’s part of the reason why I adore his books so much. My one gripe is that this small book costs $26. I’m sure the fancy paper edging was worth that much. (That was sarcasm.) The Ocean at the End of the Lane joins the host of other Neil Gaiman books that are my favorite.