THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s new book is a pleasure to read. It’s novel length, maybe, because it’s a short, compact read. Also, strangely, it has a shallow plot but reads deep. That’s me just having fun with the ocean part of the title, of course, but it’s also true of the narrative.
The story begins at a somewhat plodding pace and I was almost tempted to put it away and start something else that hooked me immediately. I’m glad I didn’t, because once this story had hold of me, I couldn’t let go. Interesting stuff, not threatening so much, just kept happening.
The story is told through the eyes of a grown man who’s remembering his childhood. We don’t get a name for him, and we don’t even know whose funeral he was attending at the beginning of the novel. I still don’t know why the present day prologue and epilogue were even used other than to say the story took place forty years ago.
The boy’s childhood is positively Dickensian, a series of events that just breaks your heart again and again as he loses so many things in his life. By the time he meets Lettie Hempstock, you’re all but emotionally drained for him.
Then things get weird – and even more threatening. I can’t get into the plot details too much without giving away stories pieces that a reader needs to experience on his or her own, but I will say that the Hempstock women (grandmother, mother, and daughter) are at once the most compelling and intriguing characters I’ve met in a while, and at the same time the most hidden and frustrating. Too much of their past is shrouded in mystery, and I know that’s the way it’s supposed to be, but that still didn’t satisfy in some ways.
Reading the book is a mystical experience, though, and I’m sure someone will turn it into a great movie at some point, although I’m not sure if it will be more horror or fantasy slanted in that incarnation. Gaiman’s observations of the nature of humankind and childhood are compelling and submersive. I sailed blissfully right into the read and rowed along with it.
However, the resolution is one that will leave a lot of readers discomforted. I wanted more. Looking back on the story once I’d turned the final page, I realized how thin the narrative truly was on plot, but the characterization of the unnamed narrator is addictive. I enjoyed the read immensely, but felt somewhat dismayed by the actual meat of the novel. The experience is more ephemeral, a wondrous fog, but not so much a full meal.