Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Photo by Andrew Wyrich

Rating: ★★★1/2

Fair warning: this review will contain a lot of firsts.

Not only is it my first review for That Worn Book Smell, but also the first Neil Gaiman book I’ve ever read.

That’s not to say that I’m naïve to Mr. Gaiman’s work (for some reason I feel the compulsion to call him Mr. Gaiman, so I’m just going to go with it). In fact, I’ve had American Gods, The Sandman and Neverwhere on my to-read list, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is officially my first Gaiman novel.

From the moment I opened the novel (after marveling at its beautiful title) and read the epigraph (a quote from Maurice Sendak in conversation with Art Spiegelman), I knew I was going to like this book. The novel’s book jacket summary is a little more and, paradoxically, a little less complicated than the plot itself, but I’ll try to summarize without too many spoilers (Note: mild spoilers).

The novel begins with the middle-aged man returning to his childhood home in Sussex, England to attend a funeral. While there, the man stumbles onto a farm at the end of the road and the pond behind the house—the pond his friend Lettie Hempstock had once called an ocean—and suddenly the unspeakable, hazy memories of his childhood come rushing back: the man who committed suicide forty years earlier; the darkness that threatened to engulf everything; the remarkable Hempstock women who changed his life when he was seven years old.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane was short (only 181 pages), but the perfect length for the complex plot, which Mr. Gaiman managed to weave with grace and ease. The story explores the soft, smudged edges of memories and the way childhood gives both authenticity and inauthenticity to them.

This novel is bubbling with contradictions—what’s true may not be true; what’s real may not be real; what’s happening may not be happening. It’s an exploration of the things that occur just outside your periphery — the things that are scariest because they are happening even if we can’t see them.

While this novel blurs memories and bends the truth and reimagines the real, it also breaks down definitions of age-appropriate reading. It was marketed for adults, but it could easily be for young adults as well (minus one abstract description of sex). I think it’s because Mr. Gaiman manages to capture these very real, adult ideas with the twinkling mysticism and confusion of youth.

Besides all of this, I greatly enjoyed Mr. Gaiman’s writing style. The words were rich and luscious and nostalgia-laden. Personally, I give props to any writer who can make thick, yellow custard sound both appealing and appetizing.

My only complaint, which I think has a little more to do with me than his writing, is that sometimes his descriptions were a little too complex. There were moments when the narrator was exploring the area around his home and I got lost in jumbles of description, which I think is a combination of Mr. Gaiman’s imagination being so vast and me not being able to navigate it properly.

Overall, I truly enjoyed Mr. Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The novel is a perfect embodiment of the idea that no one leaves childhood unscathed—that even the things that escape our immediate memory, that are lost in the fog of adulthood, never really leave us. The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a quick, surprisingly dark read that has already left a lasting impression.

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