I’m going to do the unusual thing of starting with the summary. If you want to read on you can but I can’t promise that your expectations or enjoyment won’t be spoiled from here on in.
In a nutshell, The Ocean at the End of the Lane sees Neil Gaiman at his rawest. He takes us back to a childhood moment, which could have seen something very different happen, and uses it to explore stories, reality, childhood, loneliness and learning to make the most of your life. Read it in one sitting if you can. I promise you’ll be glad you did. And don’t let the size confuse you that this a light tale. It’s deeper than the ocean.
You’re still here and you want to know more? You sure? Well, if you’re curious lets go deeper. But I’ve warned you already you probably don’t want to know.
Alright then, are you ready? Don’t say I didn’t warn you….
I’ll start with a bit of a confession. With any prolific author I think there are works of theirs you’re going to get on with more than others. I say this as I didn’t connect with The Graveyard Book as much as everyone else. I loved the concepts and ideas but couldn’t quite connect the main character. I liked American Gods and he’s written a lot of my favourite short stories. So I was a bit nervous about The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
I needn’t have worried. In comparison I couldn’t have felt more connected to the narrator telling us about an event in his younger self’s life. It could be partly because it’s written in first person that I found it easier to feel for him but I know it’s much more than that.
Here’s one reason:
‘I lay on my bed and lost myself in the stories.
I like that. Books were safer than people anyway.’
I’m sure all lovers of books escape into stories but when you’re a lonely child that escapism is a new reality. A world that isn’t like your own. It makes you feel different about yourself and the world:
‘I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.’
Moving back to what this story is about. It’s about life and living. When we first meet our narrator he has just been to a funeral though we’re unsure whose and it doesn’t really matter because his subconscious reaction is to go back to his childhood haunt and the farm at the end of lane. And there he remembers the moment when he met the 11-year old Lettie, who introduces him to the world behind the veil, though the veil is already lifting when he meets her.
There are moments of ‘reality’ that are heart stopping like a moment when his father gets angry. That scene drove me right back to being young and powerless and when you realise the world isn’t as safe as you first thought.
It’s full of observations about life and living but it doesn’t feel like moralising. Like reading Terry Pratchett you learn a lot about human behaviour but because this is first person you get it a bit more directly:
‘Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way hundreds of times, or thousands, perhaps it never occurs to step off the paths…’
It’s true when you put it like that.
And one final observation:
‘I wondered if it was true; if they were all children wrapped in adults bodies, like in children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long books. The kind with no pictures of conversations.’
As for the fantasy, well, reality turns on a knife-edge. Our immersion is clever and complete. And in a way I’d like an ocean at the end the lane too.
I really don’t want to say too much about the story itself. I will say it is short as it focused on one event, one wrong that needs to be put right. And because of that focus Neil Gaiman is free to explore the minor but significant details as well as look at the grander parts of life.
It made me smile, it made me sad, it made my heart ache and it made me think.
What else could I ask for?