The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Depending on what day of the week it is, Neil Gaiman wrote either my favourite or second favourite book, American Gods (and I’ve read a lot of books, which should tell you how goddamn good that one is), so obviously I’m going to read his new stuff at the first opportunity. And then wait about three months to review it. I’m a fanboy, and I’m lazy.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one his beguiling books that seems like a children’s book, but simultaneously really isn’t. The Graveyard Book, Coraline and, to some extent, Odd and the Frost Giants fit into the same category. In terms of style, it initially seems similar to those, but fairly soon it becomes pretty clear that this ain’t one for the kids.
Our protagonist in Ocean never thinks to give his name, which is a bit rude, but it is framed as him looking back at a particular incident in his childhood from the long distant point of middle age, and it’s not like people in an internal monologue tend to address themselves by their full name just so that people know who they are.
Anyway, said protagonist stops at the house of a girl, Lettie, who he knew when he was just a little kid, and the remainder is essentially about how Lettie and her family saved his life. You see, protagonist goes for a bit of a walk with Lettie, during which time they are attacked by a … well, “piece of cloth that evokes some sort of monstrous sentient flying stingray vibe” is as close as I’ll get to adequately describing it. The clothray manages to get into protagonist’s house by sneaking into his foot (I’m giving you the broad brushes here), and wreak havoc upon his family’s life by posing as the new child-minder. Ok, very broad brushes.
It’s a plot that’s pretty much straight fairytale: young child has to defeat powerful, evil adult to save his family. But although it has many of the hallmarks of a children’s book (simple prose, fairytale story structure, young protagonist) it’s too unremittingly dark to be considered a children’s book. Did you read the bit about the monstrous sentient flying stingray cloth monster? And that’s before other… stuff gets involved. Coraline and The Graveyard Book are both dark, but not this dark (those children’s books feature themes of interdimensional kidnapping and having your parents murdered so you’re raised in a graveyard by ghosts…). Plus, many of the themes, particularly those of losing the innocence of youth, are very much adult themes, and Ocean has to firmly be considered an adult book.
Pretty much every one of Gaiman’s books has similar elements of the fantastic and whimsical about them. And loss of innocence is a recurring theme in his work (fuck, that could basically sum up the entirety of American Gods, given that it opens with Shadow literally in a state of having lost his innocence, and continues from there), as is discovery of a new world (such as Neverwhere’s London Below).
I think the problem I have with Ocean is a similar one that I had with Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood: its greatest strength is the same quality that was my minimum expectation going in. I expected a Margaret Atwood book to be beautifully written, and Cat’s Eye was, but it didn’t have a huge amount to offer beyond that. I expect a Neil Gaiman book to give me a beautifully realised world of whimsy, and this does, but Ocean doesn’t offer too much beyond that. If anything, it feels like it’s a book stuck between worlds, which might actually be appropriate and intentional. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to get that point.
Anyway, it’s clearly not a children’s book, and lacks the joy and fun that Coraline and The Graveyard Book manage to find despite their own dark themes. But it doesn’t feel fully developed or nuanced enough to be considered as a serious novel on the same sort of level as American Gods or Neverwhere. It probably fits into the same sort of category as Good Omens: a good book, but missing that special something to make it great.
That being said, it is a damn good book, and the finale is particularly fantastic, especially as it gives a whole new revelation on what the title refers to (I think, anyway). I’d definitely recommend it. There’s a lot to love here. At the end of the day, it’s Neil Gaiman: he’s objectively one of the greatest novelists in the world, and this is a good book even against the ludicrously high standards I hold him to. But if you’re hoping for something that sits alongside Gaiman’s best, you’ll probably be a little disappointed.
Why you should read it: it’s Neil Gaiman. That’s enough.
Why you shouldn’t read it: it’s not as good as most of his other stuff, so it isn’t a great starting point.
Next up: Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher