My first exposure to Neil Gaiman was his 1990 offering (co-authored with Terry Pritchard) Good Omens, a book of wry, sarcastic wit and mature religious satire, all elements that are right in my wheelhouse. His 2013 offering The Ocean at The End of the Lane is clearly geared to a younger audience, a story of a man only long enough to get to the flashback and tell the exciting story of a boy dealing with magical powers beyond his wildest imagination.
The story proper begins with the boy recounting the worst of bad days: a birthday party where no one shows up and his kitten being run over by one of the boarders his parents have taken on to help make ends meet. Eventually the boarder’s demise leads our protagonist to the Hempstock’s house, a family of three women that trace their humble house with a pond back to the Domesday Book. Lettie takes the boy to the pond, and we are introduced to the title “Ocean.”
Strange events begin to occur, which leads our protagonist back to visit Lettie, where the elements of the supernatural come to the fore. After a confrontation with some other worldly spirit, a new nanny shows up at the house, suspiciously hip to the tricks of the young boy. He is all but imprisoned in the house, and the boy can only think to return to the Hempstock’s confident that they can alleviate his situation. When he finally escapes to their house, they are able to defeat the spirit that has been haunting the boy, but not without great cost.
On the surface, the book can seem somewhat to YA, and at just around 140 pages, it is certainly not a taxing read. Moreover, it carries many of the motifs that are common in books for such an audience: the contrast of exuberant childhood versus stale adulthood, the bookworm character, the protagonist who nobody believes but is right all along. With all of these plus a rather Spartan story, people who consider themselves more serious readers, may decline to read this book.
Yet for all of these seeming drawbacks, this book has much to offer. Unlike many YA texts with supernatural characters, Gaiman offers a rendering of the supernatural world that lives beyond our own with well-crafted, thought provoking discussion of time and space and spirituality, written in a way that is thought provoking while avoiding being heavy. Moreover, if you are a fan of stylistically diverse writing, Gaiman’s prose is beautiful. I’ve pulled several passages to use for language analysis in my classes.
But perhaps the best recommendation I can give the book is that it is a quick and enjoyable read, packed with a nice balance of story and weight. Like a nice summer salad, it is a pleasant mix of elements, light yet fulfilling, a perfect book to pick up for an idle day or two. I generally don’t enjoy Young Adult fiction, but The Ocean at The End of The Lane has enough depth to recommend it and enough story to make it worth the read.