Release Date: June 18, 2013
Publisher: William Morrow Books
Age Group: Adult
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
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.
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.
Much of Neil Gaiman’s work for adults can be described as “fiction about fiction.” He turned the aftermath of Alan Moore’s superhero-deconstructing run on Marvelman into an examination of legends told about Marvelman. He’d later reuse this trick on his two-issue Batman story “Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?” Of course, he followed up Marvelman with Sandman, which is an entire series about fairytale creatures and dreams shaping the world. American Gods was concerned with the stories we tell and who derives power from them. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is very much in the same vein, although perhaps at an even higher-level than Sandman (sadly, that discussion is too spoiler-filled for a review). Most of the techniques Gaiman uses in the novel are just as familiar as his themes, so if you’re already a fan, there’s plenty here that you’ll like. If you’re not, this book isn’t going to do anything to change your mind.
The novel is framed as an adult recounting a childhood adventure which he’d totally forgotten, which smartly allows Gaiman to maintain an adult voice despite the action centering around a seven-year-old. Gaiman occasionally uses the adult perspective to ruminate about the differences between adulthood and childhood. While it’s an interesting tactic, I’m not sure the differences are quite as clear cut as the narrator implies. The device also helps mitigate the novel’s only real issue: despite the imaginative world presented, seven-year-olds whose response to everything is to go and read Batman comics just aren’t that interesting (yes; I just called my seven-year-old self uninteresting). A somewhat subtle benefit of the adult narrator is that it lets the reader answer for themselves the big question at the end of the novel: Was the climax of the story worth it?
The plot itself is also rather standard Gaiman fare. A human stumbles upon some sort of mystical world, which then becomes the star of the show. The human doesn’t really understand what’s going and then the mystical forces go ahead and duke things out amongst each other. That’s not a criticism: it may be standard Gaiman fare, but it’s also really well-done Gaiman fare. The prose is beautifully written and garners quite a bit of nostalgic weight due to the adult perspective. Gaiman peppers the world with enough new and interesting creatures that the plot manages to feel more epic and original than it actually is, even if he reuses quite a few ideas from his previous work.
Which brings us to the center of the novel: the Hempstocks, some of the most “meta” characters Gaiman has ever dreamed up. I found them the source of some delightful and charming ideas, such as Old Mrs. Hempstock’s enumeration of the differences between neutrons, protons, and electrons. Some of the implications and discussions they have are both hilarious and mind-bending. One of Gaiman’s strongest gifts is his ability to provide weight and a sense of history to things that are only obliquely stated. The Hempstocks and the novel’s antagonist are both examples of this gift: their presence, abilities, and the suggestions they make gives the impression that there are many books’ worth of Hempstock-related material living somewhere in Gaiman’s head, even if we never end up seeing those adventures.
Considering the general “not much new” tenor of my review so far, I want to make it clear that I enjoyed the novel. The novel is well-written and the pacing is perfect. There’s not a wasted scene, which probably isn’t a surprise, considering the novel is fewer than 200 pages. The novel reuses most of the tricks that made Sandman such an awesome experience (it’s somewhat remarkable how much the Hempstocks’ powers resemble the effects of The Dreaming), and I think my mind would have been significantly more blown had I never read Morpheus’ adventures. There’s a lot to like here and nothing’s done poorly. In the end, the novel’s biggest strength, but also the facet that makes it seem somewhat like a reread, is that it feels like the book version of Sandman. And if the worst thing you can say about a book is that it reminds you of Sandman, how wrong can you go?