Anansi Boys, Coraline, Stardust—these are some of contemporary fantasy’s most well-known works. Neil Gaiman’s voice on the page has charmed the multitudes, just as much as his charisma complements it in front of an audience. 2014’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a different sort of book from Gaiman, however.
Still fully recognizable as the author’s in the little quirks and details, The Ocean at the End of the Lane nevertheless possesses a certain gravitas that Gaiman’s previous works do not. Coraline is dark almost horror-ish, Anansi Boys and American Gods have their own shadows, etc.. But all are presented and resolved around more traditional lines of comedy theater. They feature a relatively light tone and a happy rather than ambiguous or tragic ending, no matter the drama that occurs. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is distinct from this.
The story of a boy growing up in rural England to a standard middle-class family, we first meet the unnamed main character in adulthood as he returns to the region of his upbringing for a funeral. His family’s house now gone, he instead stops by a neighbor’s house for tea. Flashing back to his childhood, the story that follows is not heavy as lead, but remains something stormy, something gray, something only partially resolved, and something more equivocally human for it.
Witness to a scene that would scar any seven year-old’s mind, the boy’s memories begin as he is hustled to the neighbor’s house while his father sorts out the grisly business of the family’s stolen car and the thief inside. Meeting freckled Lettie Hempstock there, she takes the boy to the fields and introduces him to what she emphatically calls her family’s ocean (in fact a small, non-descript pond). But indeed it is more than it seems, and Lettie takes the boy on a trip like he’s never been before. Their time together not without its escapades, however, getting back home the boy discovers a worm embedded in his foot. A strange new nanny starting work at the family’s home soon thereafter, he slowly learns just how adventurous his trip with Lettie was, as the comfort of his childhood starts to crumble.
Not strange given the backward-looking setup of the narrative, nostalgia permeates The Ocean at the End of the Lane. From the little details of the English countryside of a few decades ago (cow pats and certain candy products, pulp comics and heather, etc.) to the occasional, unavoidable development of England’s countryside, the greatest part of the boy’s maturation, alongside the traumas he experiences, is the understanding of time’s perpetual motion. His older self reflective of this, the second notion coming to greater awareness is that of consequence, more particularly the permanence of some of his decisions through time. Never didactic, these facets are presented via story and in a very open, very personal tone. Complementary of Gaiman’s style, the combination renders the boy’s experiences in highly affecting terms.
In the end, The Ocean at the End of the Lane may very well be Gaiman’s most substantial novel to date (despite its relative brevity). The loss of childhood’s innocence at its core, Gaiman uses the light and dark sides of fairy to bring about the progression in terms both satisfying and personal. A short but impacting read, the boy’s story, the trials he undergoes, and the consequences of his decisions linger in the brain after and give pause to the reader to think back upon the events of their own upbringing. Many books evoke nostalgia, but to do so from such specific viewpoints—What were my formative events? Who may I have accidentally wronged? How did I relate to time then and now?—set the book apart.
*A side note: I listened to the audio version of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Narrated by Gaiman himself, it added a dynamic not always present with other narrators. Knowing the intent behind every word and line, Gaiman draws out an additional layer of story unavailable to the naked eye through the effective use of tone and rhythm. I have read other authors reading their own works before and not been as impressed. (Catherynne Valente reading her Fairyland stories, for example, lacks the same touch.) With Gaiman, however, it’s difficult not to nod your head in appreciation of how wide his talents spread—or at least how attuned his ear is to story.