Book Review: Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane"

Updated on April 18, 2020

Neil Gaiman has developed a reputation for the quality of his novels for younger readers. Coraline and The Graveyard Book are both fantastic examples of books that do not feel any need to talk down to their young audience. Each features a young protagonist confronted by the supernatural—and, neither is shy about going for a few scares, when appropriate. They were novels that were obviously written with a clear respect for younger readers, and a firm belief that they were perfectly capable of handling a little fear.

At a glance, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a novel to be targeted at the same audience. Like those other books, it features a young protagonist, in the form of our unnamed narrator. Also like those others, it is not afraid to draw on elements of very surreal sort of horror, as our narrator is forced into a confrontation with strange and supernatural forces. Despite seeming to share so many elements with those other books, though, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not actually meant for children. The themes that the novel, perhaps, just a little too mature for those younger readers.

As mentioned, the focus of the novel is our unnamed narrator—a middle-aged man who, after returning to this small town where he grew up to attend a funeral, allows himself to drift away from friends and family as he makes his way back to his childhood home. Finding that the house where he grew up as been demolised, our narrator allows himself to drift even further—making his way toward the farm at the end of the lane which he remembers from his childhood. There, he recalls meeting Lettie Hempstock, a girl who he remembers had once claimed that a small duck pond was actually an ocean.

As he sits by this pond, our protagonist thinks back to his childhood. He remembers his first encounter with Lettie Hempstock, and her equally strange family, and the time that the two of them had found themselves at the mercy of a strange, and sinister, supernatural force.

It had all begun with a tragic death—when his parents had rented out their spare room to a travelling lodger, only for the man to commit suicide. This traveller, a South African opal miner fleeing debts that he could not pay, had been found dead on the very edge of the Hempstock farm. This was an act that would go on to have much broader consequences, though—as neither the Hempstock family, or the land they live on, are entirely ordinary. This unfortunate act had also resulted in the waking of something powerful and mysterious—a strange entity that had taken an interest in the mortal world.

Overall, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a relatively short novel. It might even be fair to say that it is, perhaps, a little too short. Once the supernatural elements of the story begin to make their presence felt, things start to get very strange, very fast—and, there are many points at which it felt like the novel could have benefited from a little more room to let its ideas develop. There is the awakened creature, itself, for a start—a strange entity who may not be entirely malevolent, but who is greedy and selfish, and who clearly does not understand humans. There are things called "hunger birds", who are clearly not true birds, but whose purpose seems to be to devour anything which does not belong. There is the pond that is really an ocean, but which can be carried in a bucket—which raises many questions of its own. Then, there is the Hempstock family—three women (well, three women and a girl—although, Lettie has been eleven for a very long time) who clearly have a much deeper understanding of the true nature of all of this than the reader is permitted to share.

All of these ideas are fascinating—but, they are also thrown at our protagonist, and at the reader, at a very rapid pace. The result is occasionally overwhelming. It created a strange sensation that felt somewhat like the experience of watching the final episode of a long-running series, and trying to follow what was happening. There was obviously much more going on than what could be revealed within the pages of a single, relatively short, novel. That was something that made for an occasionally confusing read.

At the same time, though, it also felt as though this feeling of being overwhelmed was entirely intentional. We are, after all, being told a story from the perspective of a seven year old child—one who found himself caught up in something that even an adult would struggle to understand. At those point where I found myself confused and uncertain, I was simply sharing in what our narrator was also experiencing. The novel's unnamed protagonist was essentially far out of his depth from the moment he agreed to accompany Lettie Hempstock into that strange otherworld which can only be accessed through the Hempstock farm. And, he certainly was not equipped to be able to deal with the strange entity that had been awoken by that tragic suicide. When that same creature is able to make its way back into the mortal world, placing both himself and his family at risk, he is similarly overwhelmed as he is forced to rely on the Hempstock family once more. It may be a little frustrating, as a reader, to feel as though I was constantly being left in the dark about what was actually happening—but, considering whose viewpoint I was observing it all from, it did also feel appropriate.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a novel which draws on many of the same elements of folklore and fairytale that have always seemed to be present in Neil Gaiman's stories. It is a dark and occasionally disturbing story which, while it may seem to share much in common with those books for younger readers I mentioned above, explores themes and subject-matter that a child would not be able to understand. For older readers, though, it is still a fascinating experience—even if I do wish that some of its ideas could have been explored in more detail.

© 2020 Dallas Matier

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