I have finally read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. If you’ve been following along, you know I was in line at the library for several months! It’s an odd book, almost a novella, not quite sure if it’s adult or juvenile. If you’ll let me wax metaphorical for a moment, the book is not unlike the ocean of the title–small yet vast.
The frame story gives us a middle-aged man who comes back to the place where he lived as a child. He goes out to visit a neighboring farm, and becomes lost in memories by the duck pond–which Lettie Hempstock called her ocean. He remembers being seven years old, and having a glimpse of a strange, vast world very different than anything he knew.
It’s very hard to explain the plot of this book. To tell you that it’s about a fight with a monster who slips into our world would be true, but somehow minimize the strangeness and wonder of it. It is about a monster, and about eleven-year-old Lettie (though she won’t say how long she’s been eleven years old) and about an unnamed narrator who takes comfort in books and eats a lot of delectable meals at the Hempstocks, in between world-shattering terrors.
Maybe it’s hard to talk about the plot because the plot isn’t really the point here. Rather like some Hitchcock movies, it’s much more about the atmosphere and the character depth. It’s not really the plot that mattered most to me here (though it’s thoroughly creepy and engaging). It’s the mysterious Hempstock women (never fully explained) who intrigued me, and it’s the boy-narrator who lives his life in books who drew me in. And if I read this book again, it’s going to be because of the odd bits of philosophy and little sparks of wisdom and observations about life.
Even though the narrator is seven, don’t come to the conclusion that this must be a book for children of about that age. Even though it comes in at the child-friendly length of 170 pages, the writing style is sophisticated and mature, and there are at least a few moments that are not child-friendly at all. And it didn’t feel like 170 pages–it’s not slow, but like Lettie’s ocean, it felt bigger than it looked. I’ve seen this described as a children’s book and as an adult book; I’ve no idea what Gaiman intended, but I’m calling it a short but lengthy book for adults about a child.
A fun note for Gaiman fans: Lettie went to a magical market at one point, and I like to think it must have been a related franchise to the one you can find in London Below, and the one that goes on near Wall. A fun note for Doctor Who fans: I spotted at least three ideas that I’m convinced Gaiman must have picked up from Doctor Who episodes.
Don’t open this up looking for a sweet story about a boy on a farm–but if you’re open to a mysterious fantasy with dark undertones, much strangeness and beautiful writing, then it’s well-worth the read…if you can get a hold of it! At last check, my library still had a hold list 250 people long…
Author’s Site: http://www.neilgaiman.com/
Buy it here: The Ocean at the End of the Lane