At last we have come to pub day for The Ocean at the End of the Lane! For those of you not up to speed (and for shame!) here is the plot teaser:
Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
As you will recall, I had first been introduced to the story via a free e-book only to find the excerpt ended and I didn’t have a copy. The magic of publishing solved that particular problem and I was able to read Ocean in order to provide you with my thoughts and perceptions.
Having finished it, I can say it is a captivating and atmospheric story with a very strong personal feel; a sort of coming of age story with supernatural elements. Two second review: A wonderful short novel from the master of imagination and storytelling.
In typical Gaiman fashion, this story draws you in by both making you feel a part of the story but also leaving mystery and the unknown to play their roles. Gaiman never comes across as trying too hard to make everything fit together perfectly in a technical world building exercise. Instead he draws you in through his characters and the way they see the world; the way the world feels, and looks and works to them. He is not trying to explain the world but show you the world through another set of eyes (and perhaps to see things you might have missed).
And he does that powerfully and imaginatively. Ocean is balanced between wonder and fear, between family and loss, between friendship and loneliness, between knowledge and innocence. In childhood we feel all these things sharply while in adulthood we quite often seek to dull their sharpness so we can move through life more smoothly; we put powerful emotions and reactions in place except perhaps when tragedy forces us to address them again.
And by having the narrator look back on the events of his childhood we gain insights into childhood and remember both the wonder and the fear. But there is a sense of longing underlying the story; a seeking after wonder and imagination, for the powerful feelings of childhood.
JR Forasteros‘s review echoes these thoughts:
Neil’s story invites us into the person of the narrator in more ways than one. We feel like visitors to this world. It’s clearly well-crafted, wholly thought-out and beautiful. But the setting never supersedes the story. We’re left with a lot of questions, an ache to return to the Ocean at the End of the Lane. We hunger for more of this world that keeps slipping through our fingers, not because the world is unformed, but because it’s not our world. We don’t live there; we’re only visiting for a little while.
And I think Laura Miller has a perceptive review as well:
The impotence of childhood is often the first thing sentimental adults forget about it; Gaiman is able to resurrect, with brutal immediacy, the abject misery of being unable to control one’s own life. Worst of all, under Ursula’s influence, the boy’s father becomes a terrifying and dangerous stranger.
It’s a mistake to think that the figures and events in fairy tales simply “symbolize” elements of real life, the way the gibberish of a code merely stands for the intelligible message that can be derived from it. These stories have their own meanings, meanings that resonate with universal experiences without being reducible to those experiences. “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” resonates intimately with certain aspects of childhood (especially for book-loving children), perhaps more so than anything else Gaiman has written, but it’s still its own story.
I am not sure I can quite capture the elusive style of Neil Gaiman – it is uniquely his. But it has something to do with the way he has not lost the openness, wonder and imagination of childhood as an “adult” but neither does he sentimentalize or sugar coat it. He brings this magical quality to his storytelling and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is yet another example.
Do yourself a favor and pick up this short yet masterful story.