REVIEW: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

ocean at the end of the lane bookI first read The Ocean at the End of the Lane around the time it was originally published in 2013. It was the first novel from Neil Gaiman I’d ever read; I’d seen his Doctor Who work, watched Neverwhere, and read some issues of The Sandman by this point but I had never read one of his novels in their entirety. Talk about a hell of a way to get into Gaiman’s work. At the time, I was just approaching adulthood, so this novel’s tale of a middle-aged man going through a deeply nostalgic trip down memory lane really hit me hard as it evoked feelings of long-lost childhood and the story itself proved to be far scarier than anything I’d read from Gaiman before – or, frankly, since. Now, since a stage adaptation of the novel has recently been announced by the National Theatre in the UK (it hits the stage in December of this year and I desperately hope National Theatre Live broadcasts it), it felt like the perfect time to revisit this book. It’s been six years since I last read it and I reread books so infrequently that it’ll almost be like experiencing this story for the first time all over again. And how is it returning to this story, you might ask? Wonderful. I truly adore this novel.  (NOTE: this review may feature spoilers related to the plot of the story.)

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 where she once lived, 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.

A groundbreaking work 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 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.

I love this novel. Full stop. From its first page to its final page, I love every moment I spend within the confines of this story. It’s not a particularly long book – it clocks in at just under 200 pages – and it’s certainly a quick read, but it sucks you into the world of the story immediately and doesn’t let you go, holding onto your soul and your thoughts long after you’ve finished the book. It’s not necessarily a book you’ll be clamoring to reread immediately, as it packs such an emotional punch that you’ll likely be left emotionally drained after finishing it – so much so that it can feel like you’ve been hit by a freight train. I say all of that in the best way humanly possible.

On its surface, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is like any other Neil Gaiman novel. A seemingly normal main character ends up getting sucked into some crazy, supernatural stuff and shenanigans ensue. What’s different about this book, though, is just how little the supernatural stuff actually matters. Sure, it’s the supernatural stuff that really sets the plot in motion and it’s the supernatural stuff that ends up resolving the plot, but the heart of the story is about a man remembering a traumatic event from his childhood; it’s an examination of memories and how they can shape you and how their absence can make a huge difference. By basing so much of the book around the memories of the narrator, Gaiman imbues it with this weird balance of nostalgia for a childhood lost and the genuine terror that comes with being a child caught up in a traumatic event. By the end of the book, you feel the pain that the younger version of the narrator felt as he went through the events the first time and you feel the loss the older narrator feels as he is destined to forget all of these events once again. It’s a one-two punch that’s immensely impactful.

Gaiman’s written a number of stories featuring a child protagonist, and those books are normally aimed at a younger audience. This book, while it has a child protagonist, is definitively not a children’s book. The story is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue featuring a middle-aged version of the narrator returning to the neighborhood he grew up in and finding himself drawn to a mysterious house at the end of his lane. Upon going there, he is flooded with memories he’d forgotten of adventures with the girl who lived in the house – Lettie Hempstock – culminating in some pretty traumatic events that changed his life. The bulk of the story is the adult narrator retelling these newly recovered memories as he experiences them again, so all of the scenes with the child-version of the narrator are told from a very adult point-of-view; there are several instances where the narrator says something along the lines of “I didn’t think anything of it then, but were I to experience this now, here’s what I’d likely think…” It’s a really clever way to write a story about children while targeting it toward adults. Children could read this book (although I’m not sure I’d let someone much younger than early-teenager read it), but I have a feeling they wouldn’t like it as much as they’d like something like Coraline. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book about childhood that’s written for adults and it’s remarkably effective.

As far as I’m concerned, this is Neil Gaiman’s scariest book. Sure, some of his other novels have featured more traditionally horrifying imagery – an “Other” Mother who wants to sew buttons into your eyes, for example – but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a different kind of terrifying. The actual monsters are scary, but you don’t really get scared by their descriptions. What’s scary are their actions, the way they go about getting what they want; Ursula Monkton’s attacks on the narrator are particularly scary, especially the way she manipulates the narrator’s family to turn against him. That kind of domestic horror really hits me hard and I will always find something like the scene between the narrator and his father in the bathroom (I don’t wanna spoil what happens) extremely scary. Couple that with the existential dread of death and losing your memories and you’ve got a book that’s less viscerally scary and more emotionally scary. When we experience events, we never really think about how one day, there’s a good chance we won’t remember whatever we’re experiencing. Memories become fuzzy and they fade after a while, and this book touches on that feeling of knowing there’s something to remember but being unable to remember it in such a visceral way. Memories are all we have of our past, but if we don’t have them, what do we have? And when they can be so easily manipulated, can they even be trusted? These are not questions the book seeks to answer, but they are raised and you will be left thinking them as you follow the narrator’s experiences throughout the novel. This kind of emotionally-based horror will always be scarier than more traditional kinds of horror – and I love a good traditionally scary horror story.

Is this a perfect novel? No. Are there flaws in it? Yes. There’s a general lack of any real character development for anybody besides the narrator. We never really get to know any of the side characters – most notably anyone from the Hempstock family, members of which have appeared in several of Gaiman’s stories and remain just as mysterious as they were in their first appearance. Everything happens very quickly and you don’t really get to understand the threat of the story; exactly what it is and what it wants is never really made clear. But, honestly, I don’t mind it here. This is one of those stories where none of that really matters. It’s a story about a middle-aged man remembering this traumatic event he experienced as a seven-year-old boy; there’s a limit to the knowledge he’d even have. He’d have no idea what Ursula Monkton was or what she really wanted. He’d have no idea about the greater history of the Hempstock family. Seven-year-olds are fairly self-obsessed, so it’s only to be expected that he’s not gonna have any knowledge outside of what he experienced – and, even then, that knowledge might be flawed as he’s literally remembering forgotten memories. Does a part of me wish I could spend more time in the world of this novel and get to know all of the characters better and see more of the world explored? Yes, but that’s not something this story needed. This is a world that Gaiman could return to, were he ever so inclined to do so, and I’d gladly eat it up. But this story had exactly what it needed within it to make it successful. There’s never a moment where you feel like the story is lingering on something; and, even in the moments you might wish it would linger a bit more, you’re so caught up in the way the narrator is telling the story, that you’re just swept along with it. It’s really good writing.

All in all, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is my favorite Neil Gaiman book. It’s one of my favorite books that I’ve ever read. Each time I read it, it impacts me so hard that I feel emotionally wrecked after finishing it. It’s one of those stories that sticks with you long after you’ve read it. It’s a story about childhood written for adults and it leaves you nostalgic for your own childhood, especially if you share any similarities with the narrator of the novel. It’s a short book and fairly easy to read in one sitting, though I’m not sure I’d advise that as it can be an emotionally draining read. For this particular read-through, I actually spent the better part of four days reading it as I needed to put down the book a few times in order to recompose myself after a particularly affecting scene. All that being said, it really is my favorite of Gaiman’s novels – and I have yet to read a novel written by him that I haven’t loved. I wish the Hempstocks got more focus in the novel, but that’s always something that can be explored in a different novel, especially as they’ve appeared in multiple stories already. This isn’t a novel I’ll reread often, but it is one I’ll frequently think about. It’s rare that I find a story that hits me so hard emotionally, that I connect to on such an emotional level. But I love this book. It was recently announced that it’s getting adapted into a play at the National Theatre in England and I’m super excited to see how it gets translated onto the stage. This is definitely a story that could work really well on stage and I’m thrilled that an entirely new audience might get exposed to this brilliant story. If you like Neil Gaiman, read this book. If you like horror that’s more personal and more existential, read this book. And if you like stories that (sort of) deal with memories, read this. Honestly, just read this book. It’s short and it’s so good.

5 out of 5 wands.

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