Neil Gaiman’s oddly lyrical novella The Ocean at the End of the Lane is difficult to define but a joy to read. A reflective, melancholy fairy tale, it manages to simultaneously be both comforting and quietly creepy, two tones that periodically clash but often work in harmony. Those tones are enhanced by Gaiman’s decision to frame the story as the reminiscence of a man returning home to deal with the death of a loved one suddenly remembering a series of incredible, supernatural events in his childhood.
While there’s a lot to love in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it does have its problematic elements. It makes sense that the unnamed protagonist would be as passive as he is – he is a young, powerless child dealing with forces beyond his understanding, after all – it still periodically makes for a frustrating read. The best segments of this are when he’s left to his own devices and forced to find a little courage, as when he must escape tyrannical governess Ursula Monkton or when he must hide from the hunger birds; there is genuine suspense there. But too often, it’s the Lettie Hempstock show, and the Hempstocks have a tendency to defuse a lot of the tension and drama Gaiman builds up. Part of that is on purpose, I believe, as The Ocean at the End of the Lane is meant to be more reflective than thrilling or frightening, but I don’t think it always works as well as it could or should.
That said, the only other complaint I have is that the book is over too fast! I would have happily spent considerably more time on Hempstock Farm, exploring the weird world we’ve found ourselves in and seeing how our protagonist’s fateful mistake early in the book spilled out into his world. Or seeing how his mistakes – and his attempts to rectify them – affected his family. As it is, we see only snippets, big grown-up problems seen through the eyes of a child. It’s fitting, and it greatly enhances the book’s gently accepting, wondrous tone, but it does require some adjustment on the part of the reader.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane manages to capture the soft, subtle heartbreak of nostalgia. It captures the feelings of wonder and powerlessness that sometimes define childhood. It captures the feeling of growing old and knowing that something is missing from your life but not being able to say what or why. It’s short and the plotting is a little weird and I think it misses some opportunities to look at some really powerful conflicts, but you won’t read a book this year that commands such an elusive, gripping sense of wonder. There are hidden depths here. Just as with Lettie Hempstock’s ocean, there’s a grand, weird, thrilling, painful world hidden just out of sight. It’s up to the reader if they want to explore it.
Cal is a writer, librarian and critic in Pittsburgh, PA. He has been reviewing books and graphic novels for nearly five years, contributing to read/RANT Comic Reviews and a number of other sites.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by William Morrow. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.