Fans of Neil Gaiman's dark, mythology-soaked fantasy will rush out to buy his first adult book in years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But for people who haven't yet delved into Gaiman's massive body of work, this slim volume is an excellent starting place.
Minor spoilers ahead...
Top image via Neil Gaiman.
Ocean at the End of the Lane is a slim novel — not much more than a novella — that takes a simple truth of life and, in true Gaiman fashion, turns it into something dark and fantastical. The narrator, unnamed in this first-person work, returns to England for a funeral and spends an afternoon remembering a few forgotten days of his childhood.
All adults have gaps in our memories of childhood — the great sins, sudden humiliations, and small terrors that we’ve buried, until something dredges them up. In Ocean, these memories consist of a malevolent force that enters the narrator’s childhood home in various guises, and the dangers it brings with it. Gaiman has mined his own childhood for both images and incidents, and the effect is a strong sense of place, even as the place has changed through time.
The book is smaller in scope than any of Gaiman's other adult novels, but it is no less serious. Here he places the horrors of childhood — the lack of control, the dependence on unpredictable adults, the lack of understanding about the world — alongside more traditional fantasy scares. This resonates in a way that makes the book feel true, even though it is fantasy.
In Ocean, childhood is a country that's as fantastical and impossible to visit as Middle Earth or London Below. If death is the undiscovered country, childhood is the forgotten one, sharing a border with the realms of fantasy. By framing the adventures of the seven-year-old narrator as a memory, Gaiman gets to comment on the lost land of childhood with an adult’s clarity. But even as a remembrance, the book is neither overly nostalgic nor maudlin. It accepts loss as a necessary part of childhood, without dwelling on it.
While Gaiman has shown off his command of language elsewhere, Ocean has that nearly invisible prose that keeps the focus firmly on the storytelling, and not on the writing. The seeming simplicity of the prose, along with the shortness of the book, may lead some to discount it. But this simple exterior hides something much more interesting; in the same way that what looks like a pond can really be an ocean. Effectiveness in storytelling isn’t always about flashy language or page count.
Ocean has the feeling of a bow that ties up many of the past themes and ideas from Gaiman’s writings. There is the Gaiman-like first person narrator from short stories like “Queen of Knives,” “One Life Furnished in Early Moorcock,” “The Price,” and “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” His childhood house itself appeared first in “The Flints of Memory Lane.” There is a supernatural cat, as well as a being who does not quite understand human desire, just like in Coraline. The mythological triumvirate of Maiden-Mother-Crone, which he used to great effect in Sandman, re-appears here. The last name Hempstock (which once belonged to Liza and now belongs to Lettie), and the narrator’s platonic relationship with his older and wiser neighbor girl, are borrowed from The Graveyard Book. And, of course, the feeling that reality is but a skim coat of plaster over the darker, weirder, impossible truth, which is from everything he’s written.
This is not in any way a complaint about Ocean, since Gaiman has enough practice with these themes to make them feel fresh. But there is feeling of summation or of a chapter closing within the book that seems to expand to the rest of Gaiman’s work as well. And if you're new to Gaiman's writings, this is a great survey of the ideas that he's touched on in the past.
It is a simple thing to remember your past — even if it’s something strange and horrible. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple book. But memories and their lack can be powerful, and that's something that Ocean uses to its advantage. There are depths here, although they are more glimpsed than explored. And there is loss, even though it is hidden away. The book is quieter than a lot of other speculative fiction books. For all its battles with evil and incontrovertible forces, it’s really a meditation on things that are gone, like memories that can’t be recalled entirely.