The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Novel: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman | GoodreadsRelease Date: June 18, 2013Publisher: William Morrow BooksFormat: PaperbackSource: Bought
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.A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of those books that's been on my reading list forever. Whenever I get deep into the recesses of those to-read lists I made back in 2013/2014, I always stumble upon the title on there -- perhaps added as an afterthought. It's part of that canon of books that most well-read folks have, particularly in the community of YA. (It feels like Neil Gaiman is universally adored. Admittedly, I read The Graveyard Book when I was younger and wasn't a huge fan, so I wasn't sure how this one was going to shake out. I even feel a little strange reviewing it, considering how widespread Gaiman's work is.)With that being said, I was curious about what exactly The Ocean at the End of the Lane would be like. I'd heard praise for it as a whole, but none relating to specific qualities. I didn't know what it was about, much less what the experience of reading it would be.I wouldn't say it's a particularly groundbreaking narrative, but that made it no less enjoyable. It has this air of nostalgia, this aged feeling of a story that's been lost to time. And so that made it something worth sinking into for a few hours. It doesn't take long to read -- at a pleasant 181 pages -- but it feels slow in a good way. I'm glad I was finally able to get around to it.The book opens up on a forty-year-old narrator visiting his childhood home and basking in the memories flitting back to him. With those memories came a story from his youth, one that was fantastical and dark.This year, I've figured out that a lot of my reading taste revolves around magical realism or poignancy, which fits well with this title. One of the excellent parts of the book touching on both his adult self and child self is that the language itself is articulate and precise, but maintains the perspective of a kid dealing with circumstances he doesn't totally understand. (Another reason I love this one: the urgency of a seven-year-old facing the world. In adulthood or even as a teenager, we have a tendency to assume that our problems trump that of a little kid's.) With that being said, the book itself is symmetrical and neat. It ties everything up nicely, while still drifting out questions that are unanswerable. Throughout it all, the fanciful elements provide a nice bit of escapism.I loved that smart quality that the main character has, of being able to distance himself from the situation and speak philosophically about ideals of innocence and childhood. Considering one of my last full reads lately was On Love, I loved that detachment without disconnect. He also reminded me of many clever protagonists I'd read in middle grade novels, who seem wise beyond their years without feeling condescending -- still capturing that lofty spirit of youth.The language was less grand than I expected, but still conveyed a lot of meaningful feeling. On that note, there are some great, simple lines and ideas in there. Also, reading a book about a child as someone older makes his observations much more resounding. Some of the ways in which he coped have a spirit of melancholy that contributes to the languid mood of the book.The plot itself was simple enough, but parts of it -- the ocean in a bucket, snipping bits of time, etc,. -- lend itself to that gnawing sense of otherness that is so satisfying in magical reads. Small details allow full scenes to bloom into comforting (or scary) images that linger in a gratifying way.All in all, I was a fan. I did enjoy the quiet simplicity of the lines, and their ability to capture universal human feelings. I loved the sense of dread and confusion present through the horror aspects of the novel, and how that contrasts with the innocence of the main character. He's lovable, and you root for him the entire way through. The plot itself, although a bit muted, drew me in nicely. What's more, the pacing and ending allow it to feel tidy but still compelling. I definitely see why it's such a well-cited part of the literary canon.
Here are a few of the lines I underlined:
“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”“That's the trouble with living things. Don't last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together.”“I make art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all.”“I was a normal child. Which is to say, I was selfish and I was not entirely convinced of the existence of things that were not me, and I was certain, rock-solid, unshakeably certain, that I was the most important thing in creation. There was nothing that was more important to me than I was.”
See how wonderful they are? Fun fact: as I've been more active on bookstagram this year, I've been posting my underlines on my story as I read. So if you love seeing what lines I like, I'll usually have a quote or two up on there. All in all, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is worth it, even if it takes you a while to get around to reading. Luckily, it feels timeless.