Before I picked this book up I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like. I had no idea, in fact, what to expect.
And after finishing it, I’m not sure I know anymore than I did at the start.
It’s fantasy, yes. Fairytale? Also yes. Young adult? I would say so. Adult fantasy? Again, another yes.
It doesn’t fit easily into a single category but you could say that about a lot of Gaiman novels.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane was originally intended as a short story written by Gaiman as a gift for his partner, Amanda Palmer. But as he says, it grew in the telling and turned into the small novel it is today. It was a story intended to be somewhat about his childhood; obviously as you read the book you can tell it veers away from that but the foundations are there.
A small child in England. Friends with books more than people. Lonely except when he is reading.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels personal. It feels like something someone would write with the intention of only having a select few reading it. I’m grateful Gaiman decided to publish it though, because reading this book gave me an immense amount of comfort. It cut through loneliness I long thought I had put behind me and it forced me to look at my past and cut through the nostalgia to the truth.
But that is the effect this book had on me, one person. And it’s the only experience of reading it I can speak to with any sense of authority.
So what about the book itself. Is the prose incredible? In typical Gaiman fashion, the prose is as simple as it needs to be. The book, for the most part, takes place from the point of the view of a child (or rather, a man remembering himself as a child but for all intents and purposes it’s the same) and the prose reflects that. It’s simple, wide-eyed and honest. Much like children are. Gaiman doesn’t obfuscate and hide behind overwritten phrases and long exhausting sentences. The child is open and therefore his prose is as well.
The plot, then. What about it? To that I can only answer, what plot? This is a character driven story, the plot is threadbare at best.
A man returns to his childhood home and is sucked down into memory of a child who has to oust and defeat an evil nanny with the help of a friend who lives down the end of the lane.
That’s the plot and it’s simple. It doesn’t need to be complicated because the complexity comes from Gaiman’s characters and the depth he brings to them. It’s the meditation of the novel on nostalgia and the ephemeral aspect of memories from childhood. And how, as we become adults, we seem to lose something of ourselves.
We seem to lose the sense of wonder, the sense that anything is possible and anything can happen. We lose the belief that yes, at the end of the lane in England there can be a pond as large as an ocean and the world can be filled with magic and monsters.
That’s the crux of this story. It’s a love letter to the lost wide-eyed belief of childhood. Something that seems to happen to most, if not all, people who are lucky enough to live into adulthood.
Whilst there is action in this story, don’t pick it up expecting sword and sorcery. There’s not an ounce of complex politics or armies battling on fields with the fate of the world on one side or the other.
This is a personal story. A quiet story, and if you go in expecting something huge and bombastic, something that will blow you away like Mistborn, you will be disappointed.
But please, don’t let that make you skip over this book. It won’t knock your socks off with action but it may still do it with it’s message and beauty.
It blew me away. I put this book down with the feeling that I had been understood. Again, this is very specific to me, and it might not be the same for you, but I felt like this book was written for me. That Gaiman had reached into my past and pulled out my memories and put them down onto the page.
I was the book-nerd, I was the kid who read instead of going out, and I was lonely, though I didn’t realise it at the time.
But when I finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, I realised that I wasn’t the only one. It wasn’t just me.
Not so alone after all.