Neil Gaiman’s latest novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane aims to be both a deeply engrossing dark fairy tale and also a metaphor for the disconnect between childhood and adulthood that we often find in our memories. At 178 pages, the story moves along at a fast past, but it can’t quite reach the emotional impact that it strives to reach. Gaiman, author of Coraline, American Gods, the comic series Sandman, and more, continues his streak of mythical yet personal tales, but is ultimately a lesser entry.
The story follows a rather Gaimanesque premise: Our unnamed protagonist reflects on a time when he was seven years old and found himself thrown into a supernatural incident at home. Due to the suicide of a lodger staying at his house, a rift into the supernatural world is torn open, and a being with bad intentions for our hero invades in the form of a nanny named Ursula Monkton. In this form, the villain of the story presents both a supernatural and human threat. She wants to use the protagonist as a doorway into the other realm, and she turns his family against him.
What elevates the story beyond a straightforward fairy tale is the framing device of the protagonist narrating his own past, as these long-forgotten memories are suddenly remembered as he sits by the pond of his childhood friend. Ideas of repressed memories, traumatic events, and broken family relationships inform much of the novel’s supernatural aspects. These issues are only just barely hidden under the surface, with incidents including child abuse and family dysfunction blindsiding the protagonist. While these events are motivated by a strange and undefined supernatural antagonist, many of the issues present could easily be left intact should the supernatural elements be removed.
As the story progresses and the threats to our hero shift, the ideas of child abuse and disruptions of the family dynamic are pushed aside in favor of a different enemy that doesn’t pack the same emotional punch.
Like many of Gaiman’s other stories, our hero does not fully understand the threats he is facing or how he can fight back, but is aided by characters who are much more knowledgeable and powerful.
In this instance, it is the Hempstocks, a family that lives down the lane from our hero and is comprised of a grandmother, mother, and daughter. It quickly becomes obvious that these three are far more than they seem and give the protagonist a view into the world that exists beyond ours. Of all the characters in the novel, these three easily stand out the most, with the daughter, Lettie, the most interesting. Her youth — she appears to be 10 years old — is strongly offset by her disposition, as she is implied to be thousands of years old.
These three quickly become strong examples of women who are wise, capable, and intelligent, with their femininity being the underlying cause of these strengths. Unfortunately, it also highlights how flat the other characters are, including the central character.
Gaiman creates a true sense of dread and powerlessness in the presence of Ursula Monkton and other threats while making the Hempstocks feel warm and inviting while also mysterious. Gaiman’s prose is straightforward, but still stylish, and the novel’s tone is quickly set and stays strong throughout.
While the protagonist shares some similarities to Gaiman’s other young heroes like Coraline and Nobody Owens of The Graveyard Book, he doesn’t have their same strong personality that allows us to root for him. By viewing the child through the memories of his older self, we are given greater insight, but are somewhat kept at an arm’s distance. Unlike Gaiman’s other strong and admirable characters, he can’t fend for himself and is only saved from utter doom thanks to the much stronger character of Lettie.
Many of Gaiman’s common themes are here: the pain of growing out of childhood, dangerous threats hidden in everyday life, and a mystical world that dwarfs the problems of everyday life. But unlike his other stories, these are given little time to breathe. In fact, these threads may not be as noticeable to readers who haven’t delved into his other works.
Gaiman has a talent for quickly engrossing readers in a world that is quickly consumed by the supernatural. As our protagonist encounters various magical threats and is aided by a female trio who are obviously not of this world, the supernatural covers and distorts what was once relatable. However, unlike other Gaiman stories, we are only given a glimpse into the other side and are constrained by our hero’s comprehension and memories.
While these incursions into magical realms are tantalizing, they are sometimes frustratingly obscure. At worst, it sometimes seems as if the places, people, and concepts mentioned by magical characters have no real deeper meaning behind them, but are only presented to seem as such.
Other instances of magic, including the cutting and stitching of fabric that removes moments in time and a dive into an endless ocean of time and space via a bucket, are enchanting. These are the moments when Gaiman’s ideas truly take center stage.
While some of Gaiman’s strengths are on display throughout the novel, its short length and lack of strong emotions keep it from reaching the thrills and strong emotional connections that are present in many of his other stories. While we quickly sympathize with our protagonist’s younger self, we have little time to fully understand him and his struggles. To some degree, this can help the reader put him- or herself into the shoes of the hero, but it also robs him of some of his identity.
In the end, The Ocean at the End of the Lane provides a glimpse at what makes Gaiman a fascinating and exciting writer, but new readers would be better off exploring the worlds he has created in American Gods, The Graveyard Book, or Anansi Boys.