I had the pleasure of reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane while sitting in my theater seat, waiting for my section to be called to line up for Neil Gaiman’s autograph. The book was great, the experience was great, and by the time I got to him (I was in the last section), Gaiman looked exhausted. But he was still friendly, still smiling, and still thanking people for coming. It was 2:30 in the morning.
Anyway, about the book. I would say it’s pretty standard Gaiman – magical, adventurous, and a little dark. When he was introducing the book on stage, he said he wrote it when he missed his wife, so he wrote it with her in mind. He said he added more “feelings” than usual, and toned down the fantasy aspect that most of his writing has. I opened the book later, expecting to find some crying, some intense discussions about love or life, and very little magic. I can’t say I was disappointed to be wrong.
The book opens with a middle-aged man visiting the town he grew up in. He goes for a stroll down memory lane, literally, and then the adventure begins. I forgot a few times that what I was reading was one long memory, as the majority of the book was the retelling of that period of the character’s life. But Gaiman reminds the reader once in a while by throwing in details about what’s happening around the older man as he remembers his childhood.
The memory opens with the suicide of a man at the end of a road. The imbalance of life and death begins an experience that only a child would handle with any kind of grace and understanding. As the quote by Maurice Sendak at the beginning of the book suggests, there are things children know that would scare adults. I don’t think this book would have worked if it was written from the point-of-view of the older man, or one of the adults in the story.
I recall the passive way I almost-observed the world around me as a child, and how I would focus on things I deemed very important that really had nothing to do with the bigger picture. That’s how the memory begins. As the adventure progresses, the boy notices more and more, maturing as these things happen around him that are largely out of his control. He is often acted upon in this story, and there is a distinct moment when you realize that this child has become a dynamic character – that he will take action when the things he loves are in peril (feelings!).
Although this book takes place in the “real world,” there is definitely a fantastical element to it. However, Gaiman handles the distinction elegantly, and does not let the reader forgot which characters are part of the fantastical element, and which characters are not even aware of it. More than a little action and conflict in this story result because of that difference.
At the risk of giving away too much to those of you who haven’t read it yet, I’m going to stop there. However, I will say that the title for The Ocean at the End of the Lane is incredibly clever. It is quite literal in an obvious way – the boy’s new friend calls her pond an ocean. But the title is also metaphorical in a few ways. The boy’s life changes because of an event that happened at the end of the road. The adventure and the conflict and his fantastic new friendship all result from that – and began at the end of the lane.
I hope I’ve said enough to interest you, but not so much I’ve spoiled the book. If you get a chance to see Gaiman live, and enjoy him or his writing, take it. Especially if you’re in the U.S., as he is currently on his last U.S. tour. Also, let me know what else I should read by him!
Thanks for reading!