Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Book Review)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane cover

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a surprising book. It’s Neil Gaiman’s first adult novel in years, but it actually feels reminiscent of his younger stories. Coraline makes the best comparison: A young child stumbles into a world beyond his own and faces a magical being that threatens him through his family ties. The story moves along with comfortable fairy tale logic, and no one who is familiar with Gaiman’s influences will be surprised by the way the plot unfolds. The half-explained cosmology is intriguing, though. Being a Gaiman story, the writing has a slightly lyrical, twee sensibility, and it’s simple enough to fit the child protagonist, but it always makes the story’s otherworldly logic seem perfectly natural.

Ocean is an adult novel, though, and not just because of the slightly gruesome death early on. It’s told from memory by the adult narrator, and he understands some things that had gone over his head at the time. One theme of the novel is the different perspectives of children and adults. It opens with a quote from Maurice Sendak saying that children know terrible things that would scare adults, and the story seems built around that. The narrator can’t tell the people around him what’s going on, but shoulders the responsibility with a strength that few adults remember. Gaiman does appreciate that aspect of youth, and again, that makes it seem pretty comfortable to its readers. It’s a metaphor for childhood, and we understand what’s going on even though adults aren’t supposed to. We’re in control of the story, right?

But that’s why I introduced Ocean as a surprising book. Things slowly but surely go off the rails for us, even as the fairy tale heads towards its predictable happy ending. The magical threat is a childish horror that wasn’t supposed to scare us after all – there are other surprises here that the kid doesn’t even notice but that did unsettle me.

At the end, we’re treated to a discussion of what it all meant, and it turns out that simple fairy tale logic doesn’t translate to simple answers. We’re left to draw our own conclusions about life’s meaning and value, and how childhood experiences define us as adults.

Like Gaiman’s best stories, Ocean is a slow-building book that doesn’t seem too impressive until all the pieces start to fall together. In this case, the real payoff is in your thoughts for the days after you finish. It’s a very quick read, though, so you can expect that to happen right away. I finished it two weeks ago, and I can say that the haunting thoughts about life faded after only a few days. The book is still there as a faded memory, though, and one that tugs at me. I hardly ever re-read books, but I’m expecting to come back to this one in a few months. Much like the narrator, I need to see what turns up when I reexamine the memories.

Grade: A-

  1. What do you think about the size of the book? Do you think it deserved its price tag?

    • At first, I was disappointed by the size of the book. It’s about half the size of a normal adult novel, but (in hardcover, at least) only $1 or $2 less in cost. The story feels perfect for its length, though, and I enjoyed it so much that I haven’t worried about the price since.
      There are different ways to judge the cost of books. If you go by the reading time or amount of physical material, this one’s a bad deal. But if you go by the enjoyment, this one’s worth a lot more than most books I’ve spent $20 on. And since I’ll probably re-read it, talk about it, and loan it out, I’ll get more time out of it in the long run.
      I don’t THINK that the manufacturers are trying to rip people off, though I know less about that. My understanding is that the physical manufacturing cost is a small portion of the overall price, and hardcovers have always been marked up compared to paperbacks just because that pays for all the initial overhead of editing, marketing, etc. If true, then it makes sense that this book took an effort equivalent to the effort of a normal-sized novel, and they need to price the hardcover accordingly to make the finances work out.
      Of course, if I hadn’t enjoyed the book, I probably would just be annoyed at the price and not thinking it through so much 🙂

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