248 pages | Headline Review | Speculative Fiction, Fantasy, Magical Realism
The digest: some of the best magical realism awaits you in Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane – a novel which follows a grieving man’s exploration of a childhood he had forgotten.With simply amazing worldbuilding and storytelling, this novel is one that I think everyone should read.
From the book’s Goodreads page:
“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.”
- Gaiman’s storytelling in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is outstanding. Piece by piece the author pulls his reader into a secondary version of Earth where ill will and greed can literally breed beings desperate to break through to humanity’s domain and wreak havoc. But what makes this so good is the variability of the narration here; at the start of the novel we follow a young man as he drives away from a funeral, but soon enough he ends up back in his childhood home, where the story takes on a much different tone. No longer is the world our own; it is one viewed from the lens of the main character as a child – where he doesn’t quite understand exactly what is going on around him. Sure, we can rationalize some of the things he sees and experiences, but Gaiman ensures that we don’t feel too safe in this reminiscence/reliving of childhood. The monsters under the bed may not be make-believe after all.
- The main story is the adult main character reliving elements of his childhood, dipping into his memories to make an odd comment here and there. What readers need to remember is that our narrator is recalling these events as we read them; he has no idea how it all ends until we do. Lovely stuff.
- In addition to this, there’s is also the contemplation/ignorance of adult themes from a child’s perspective, which really made me think about how much we all miss as children that we would fully understand as an adult.
- The worldbuilding is top-notch. I don’t want to spoil too much, but you should know that there is a lot more going on beneath the surface of the story than meets the eye. This is both a good and a bad thing – we know that X is possible in this storyworld, but what happens next? My copy of the novel has a little interview with Gaiman at the end which I found quite enjoyable – if I were you I’d try and seek this out!
- The pacing is good. I think that the middle of the story did stay plod on a little too long, but generally, the plot was well-ordered with key events spaced out well.
- The characters were well-developed for the most part. Due to the perspective of the narration, one has to accept that actual character development won’t be as obvious as it could be in other books. However, the way our protagonist notices certain things helps us view the world from his point of view, while at the same time being able to form our own opinions about characters based on the facts we actually read.
- This doesn’t mean that the development is superficial at all. As adult readers, we can appreciate Lettie and her family, the strains on our protagonist’s family, the impact of recalling this has on our grieving adult MC. Everything on the page adds to a general sense of tension between all of the characters in the novel – something I very rarely see. I massively enjoyed this.
- A bit nit-icky – I would have preferred a larger focus on the Hempstocks and their history. This is a common thread I have picked up in Gaiman’s books from what I have read so far – he chooses to be selective about what he tells his readers and what he leaves to their imagination. I’m the sort of person who always likes to have things explained in reasonable detail, and all I can hope is that one day Gaiman returns to this world in one form or another and fleshes our a few bits of the story.
In conclusion: 4.5/5. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a bloody good novel, and with its brevity in mind I wholeheartedly recommend it to all readers – where you like fantasy or not, I genuinely believe you’ll enjoy the weirdness found here. This experience has actually persuaded me to read more of the author’s works, and I hope to move onto Neverwhere or Stardust soon(ish).