I know it’s been a few months since this came out, but my mom bought me a signed copy for Christmas so I held off on reading it until I received the signed copy.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s latest fairy tale. Gaiman always writes things with a darker edge, and this was no exception. It was written more along the lines of Coraline and Stardust than, say, American Gods or Neverwhere, with a simpler plot line and less complicated storytelling. It is an adult’s book, though I would say anyone 12+ could safely read it. (There is a part or two that might exclude your under-12 crowd; a not-terribly-indiscreet sex scene, or implied sex scene – there’s rather passionate kissing – and a few scary and many suspenseful parts.)
It’s the story of a nameless narrator, who goes back to his hometown in his middle age and finds himself wandering out to his old childhood home and then onto his old neighbor’s property. After a cup of tea and some conversation, he finds himself at the edge of a pond, struggling with half-formed memories. But then he remembers – it’s not a pond, it’s an ocean. And both he and the reader are plunged back into the year he was 7, a year of adventures and magic and mysterious others.
I won’t delve much on the plot. It’s good – fast, intriguing, paced well enough that you hold your breath during the scary parts and never quite relax until the end. There’s lots going on and it’s much less fill-in-the-holes-y than some of his other stuff. (American Gods, anybody?) Which is nice; this is a short read but also a quick one. At the same time, it still feels like you’re reading a Gaiman novel; the world is complex and you can tell there’s more going on than he’s letting the reader see.
It’s told in first person POV and we can only see what our 7 yr old narrator sees; it’s not colored, at least not obviously, by the 40 yr old’s recollections. I really liked the choice of narrator, actually. He’s observant and intelligent, though believable as a child. He’s very sympathetic and he does have all those moments children dream of having, like rebelling against authority figures and being right while the parents are wrong – though, of course, not in the way you’d expect. At the same time, he’s flawed and well-rounded. He’s brave, but not extraordinarily so, which I appreciated. So rarely do you read of a hero in an adventure with ordinary courage, if that makes any sense.
The neighbors, by the way, are the Hempstocks, three generations of women who live at the edge of the ocean. They possess great, but not unlimited, power. The grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, is a woman both comforting and intimidating. Her granddaughter, Lettie, is practical and extraordinarily brave, in a very matter-of-fact way. In the non-literary sense, they are the heroes of the story. I, of course, love strong female characters and this book is peppered with them. They’re – I hesitate to say well-rounded; not every character needs to be well-rounded – but well-developed. The reader begins to understand them, and though they may not be terribly multi-faceted and complex, they are immense and deep characters and it is enough.
The book is driven by plot, though not at the expense of the characters. Though character growth is not focused on – and indeed, I am not sure that many of the characters even grow – it does a great job of exploring the characters, which was enough to satisfy me, especially given the brevity of the story. In short, it’s a remarkably well-balanced book and I absolutely loved it. And, it should go without saying that Gaiman is an excellent writer and this was no exception.
If you have been wanting to like Neil Gaiman but find his works intimidating, or if you like darker fantasy books, or if you like child narrators (ug, sorry if that sounds weird), you should definitely give this one a shot. If you lean more towards epics or stories where the main character is heroic and saves the day, than, sadly, this may not be the book for you.