The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Perhaps with the exception of the first book of Gaiman’s I read, the sprawling epic American Gods, the fact is that in general he is an author who I respect most for his incredibly tight writing. Not a word is wasted in most Gaiman books, they’re not long and they’re not epic, they’re intimate, personal and haunting, and although my favourite Gaiman is still American Gods, I’m nonetheless really impressed by The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
The protagonist of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an unnamed middle aged man on the day of his father’s funeral. Wandering, he returns to the house of a childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, and there is suddenly overwhelmed with memories of his childhood involving the strange supernatural events surrounding Lettie and the other women of the Hempstock family.
I don’t really want to say more than that; the whole novel has a fuzzy, dreamlike quality to it, with the fantastical imagination which has defined Gaiman’s career on full show. As much as I like Gaiman’s work, some of it can tend towards being a little too whimsical, but there’s none of that here. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a thoroughly creepy tale through and through, with some really nasty baddies. As well as being, most importantly of course, a damn good little story, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is also a book about the fallibility of memory and the illusory gap between childhood and adulthood. Books for young people are generally about empowering children, as they should be, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a book for children, as it deals most fundamentally with the powerlessness of childhood, with the arcane world of adulthood locked away from them, intangible and terrifying. Gaiman’s writing is increasingly precise, with not a word wasted. His books just flow in a way few others can accomplish, with prose which manages to be incredibly powerful and striking without getting in the way of a good story.
The unnamed protagonist is typical of Gaiman protagonists; not overburdened with personality themselves, but a figure that is instantly relatable. Most of Gaiman’s more recent characters are those that you can easily project yourself on to, feeling what they feel all the more keenly. The Hempstock women are funny and interesting, and Gaiman’s hinted they may show up again somewhere else, something I certainly would not be opposed to. The best character though is the incredibly creepy villain, which plays with and combines established tropes into something truly nasty.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a great palette cleanser, a trim and lean supernatural story with enough depth to make it interesting. I don’t need to persuade fans of Gaiman to read this, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane would actually make a really good first Gaiman book, so if you haven’t had the pleasure so far, this is a good place to start.