The Ocean at the End of the Lane
By: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow Books
Publication Date: June 18th, 2013
Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.
Believe it or not, up until last month there was still one Neil Gaiman novel I hadn’t read (I have yet to get into his short story collections, thus emphasis on novel). But no more: now I have read Ocean at the End of the Lane. Although it’s not my favorite Gaiman read, I definitely enjoyed it: it’s somewhere between Stardust and Neverwhere in terms of feel. I can also keep my claim that every Gaiman novel occurs in the same universe.
The story is intriguingly, almost deceptively simple–the story of a man who finds himself back in his boyhood town, near the house he was a child in, and goes to his neighbor-friend’s place to look in the pond (which she used to call the Ocean) and reminisce. But then in his reminiscence, he recalls a boyhood adventure with this neighbor that has had a long-lasting impact.
The book, with the exception of the opening and closing chapters, follows this adventure: this man’s long-ago encounter with magic, thanks to his friend Lettie Hempstock and her family, who are something like witches. It’s an odd book to fit in a genre, but for the sake of the context of those opening and closing chapters it’s probably adult (otherwise it would be a kid’s book).
But the story of the main character (who is unnamed for the entirety of the book) is also fascinating. As with so many Gaiman novels, it’s about his introduction to magic–sparked by the death of one of his family’s tenants, and then furthered by his meeting Lettie and her odd family. But it’s not just a brief introduction to magic–instead, there are real-life consequences, as some slips through and begins changing the boy’s world.
The story is simple, easily readable–it’s easy to slip into the boy’s unassuming look at the magic happening around him, his fear and his trust in Lettie. But I also feel as if the book is written more for the adult who finds themselves at an age where they should have given up assumptions of childishness, given up a belief in magic, but haven’t yet. It’s easy to sympathize with the main character, not only as a child, but as an aimless adult who still wishes for magic (and, although he doesn’t understand it, is still steeped in it). That lasting feeling of reading it is, the unsettling wonder of whether our childhoods are what they remember, what I found compelling, although the story was as good as any other Gaiman story.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.