Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a modern fairy tale that’s sure to become a classic. I have extremely high expectations for Gaiman’s work, as his American Gods is one of my favorite books, and I was not disappointed. The Ocean at the End of the Lane delivers everything a reader could want from a fantasy novel: adventure, mythological creatures both good and evil, mystery, suspense and a glimpse at worlds unknown.
The unnamed protagonist of the story is a man who travels to his childhood home for a funeral which leads him on a trip down memory lane. As he visits the Hempstock farm at the end of the lane, he begins to remember the adventure he had the spring he was 7 years old. Most of the story is told from the point of view of the 7 year old boy, curious and introspective, an avid reader. His life is simple: a younger sister, mother and father; his parents have fallen on hard times and have to rent out the boy’s room to tenants to help pay the bills, and his mother has to begin working outside the home as well. This change in the family dynamic is what starts the adventure for the boy.
One of the tenants, a burly opal miner from South Africa, enters the story in a great display of foreshadowing from Gaiman. The sense of danger and impending calamity that runs throughout the story is almost palpable as Gaiman describes the boy’s feelings, “I did not want to open his box. I wanted to go off on my own. I wanted to cry for my kitten, but I could not do that if anyone else was there and watching me. I wanted to mourn….The box moved. ‘Bought it for you,’ said the man. ‘Always pay my debts.’”
The plot unfolds in a familiar way to readers, in fairy tales one incident leads to the next, and everyone and everything is connected. When the boy meets the 11 year old girl from the Hempstock farm, Lettie, the reader knows this is happening for a reason, and their meeting will have a huge impact on the boy. The Hempstock women are both comforting and familiar, yet otherworldly. The boy sits and eats at their kitchen table, while wondering how they can talk about unknown events happening elsewhere as if they can see and hear them.
As Lettie and the boy embark on an adventure between two worlds, the reader is swept along, worrying for the boy and wondering about the mystery of the Hempstock women and farm. Gaiman fleshes out his characters just enough. He delights in suspense and detail. The story is sparse and simple but still rich and deeply emotional.
As always, Neil Gaiman is a master of tense macabre. I can’t recommend all of Gaiman’s books enough, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no exception. My only complaint, and it’s only because I’m a gluttonous, greedy reader, is that the story is short. I wish it were part one of a three part book. It’s a wonderful stand-alone story though and I highly recommend picking up a copy immediately. One more note, if you are building your own excellent library I highly recommend buying the hardcover edition of this novel. The cover is stunning and the production of the book itself is just beautiful. It’s well worth the money. I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift and I absolutely cherish it!