My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane is to its reader as the TARDIS is to the world of “Doctor Who.” It is a short novel that contains a fictional world that is much larger than its external physical appearance leads one to assume. In a way, this is a metaphor for the plot of the book, Gaiman’s tenth adult novel, published by William Morrow in 2013. Its story within a story expands greatly, eventually reaching to the origins of the universe, all the while remaining within the narrative of a middle-aged man’s memories of his quite unusual and terrifying childhood.
The protagonist, who is never named, narrates the story as a long flashback experienced while visiting a rural area of Sussex, England, where he spent his childhood. Significantly, he has come for a funeral. He visits a farm at the end of the lane on which his boyhood home had been located. Although the house he lived in as a child has been demolished and the one that replaced it (his teenage home) has been modified, everything at the farm is the same.
Memories of a frightening adventure with Lettie Hempstock, a girl who had lived there with her mother and grandmother, begin to return. The farm is not an ordinary farm; neither are its residents ordinary people. For example, Lettie insists that the pond behind the farmhouse is in reality an ocean. As the narrator becomes absorbed in the past, the boundaries between physical reality and the underlying supernatural world begin to dissolve. He recalls how a supernatural being had found its way into the world and terrorized him, eventually drawing in even more terrifiying beings — such as the “hunger birds.”
He also remembers how Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother helped him, making a significant sacrifice to do so. The experience changes him in significant ways, causing a premature transition to adulthood and a disillusionment with the adult world. In the narrative present, he tries to come to terms with this history forty years after it occurred, while again under the spell of the otherworldly place to which he has returned.
Although this book is short enough to be read in a single sitting, I read it over several months. I started reading it (silently) in an eighth-grade English classroom, attempting to provide a “model” for the students during their twenty-minute “self-selected reading” time. I did not make much progress because of the need to observe the students and make sure that they were actually reading their own books. However, I was not able to move much faster through the text even while reading on my own time.
This is not meant as a negative reflection on Gaiman’s book. In fact, it is evidence of the depth to which the plot absorbed me. I found myself being drawn into my own childhood memories (which are certainly less dramatic and more mundane than those recounted by the narrator). I suppose that being a middle-aged man myself, with the usual unfinished business (psychological and otherwise) that comes with this stage of life, had something to do with it. Also, the metaphysical and cosmological aspects of the novel provoked periods of thought, both about the world of the novel and that of its author.
It is likely that the Whovian journey on which Gaiman look this reader (sans TARDIS) is likely to provoke a similar experience in others. His story, believable despite its fantastic nature, completely absorbs its reader. Although this (I am embarrassed to admit) is the first Neil Gaiman novel I have read, it is a fortuitous place to start. I predict that those readers who are already fans of the author will judge it to be one of his better efforts. My next Gaiman read, by the way, will be the Sandman graphic novels.