As a child there were few stories I loved more than those by Rudyard Kipling, especially his Just So Stories. The lyrical quality of his prose and the simple magic of his fables such as The Elephant’s Child and The Cat That Walked by Himself were the beginning of my love for fantasy. I haven’t read Kipling in years, but within pages of cracking the cover of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane I was transported back three decades. Gaiman has penned a fable for adults, a deceptively complex alloy of mystery, magic, and truth that as just as powerful as any of his previous works and is destined to land on award ballots and “best of” lists alike.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the story of a nameless narrator, who upon returning to his hometown in his forties for the funeral of an equally nameless relative, finds himself drawn to the sprawling farm near his boyhood home only to relive the events of his seventh year, where he made his first and truest friend in the person of eleven year old Lettie Hempstock and experienced events both horrible and magical that left their mark on him forever.
Gaiman has said that this novel is his most personal, and I could imagine these events happening to the child that eventually grew up to give us such master works as Sandman and American Gods. That there are monsters and beings of unknown power tangled up with this story of lonely boy who escapes his loneliness in the pages of books makes no difference. Gaiman’s prose is so full of truth that the fantastic elements of the story borrow that authenticy as easily as a neighbor asking for a cup of sugar. And by leaving his narrator nameless it is far simpler to imagine that this is Gaiman’s story and by extrapolation our own.
Constant readers of Gaiman’s work will find much familiar ground here. Hints of popular themes of growing up and the transformative nature of maturing are just below the surface, as is the experience of viewing horror through the eyes of the very young. Gaiman tackles this common theme from a different perspective here, allowing us to simultaneously see the adult narrators reflection on his childhood memories, while still experiencing the simpler, dare I say more pure, perspective. It’s an inspired choice that elevated the tale above similar works such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Ocean at the End of the Lane has much to say about both childhood and how that formative experience shapes the persons we become, but I will leave that interpretation to the readers, as I believe each will bring their own particular perspective to this both very specific and completely universal story.
Gaiman also shows of his mastery of world building. Few authors can create such a complete mythology with so little specifics. This is a story of very specific and narrow scope, being confined to essentially just one street but Gaiman reveals glimpses of the world beyond and the forces at work just beneath the painted surface of the world. He never wastes time with exposition, allowing the characters in the know to simply state facts without the need for explanations our sever year old narrator is completely incapable of understanding. Things simply are what they are and the lack of explanation only amplifies the horror and mystery of it all, transporting the reader back to childhood where the truly wonderful and terrifying aspects of life were beyond understanding.
As expected Gaiman’s prose is elegant, effortless and reflects the decades of experience Gaiman has with crafting tales of this kind. It is next to impossible to find a page of this novel that doesn’t burst with insight and truth. Ocean at the End of the Lane, is infinitely quotable and relatable for readers at any stage in life, though I would not recommend it for children, though teenagers would likely find much to enjoy here. I would not be surprised to find this novel on a summer reading list in the future so profound is Gaiman’s mastery of the craft and insight into the human condition.
I cannot recommend Gaiman’s latest effort highly enough, and imagine that we will see his name on virtually every short list during awards season. I imagine most of my readers have already devoured The Ocean at the End of the Lane. If not, don’t waste any more time. Gaiman has delivered yet another gem of tale that all but the busiest of readers will consume in scant little time.