Neil Gaiman’s 2013 offering, like the other Neil Gaiman books I’ve read, is a book which I picked up on impulse one day. There is something about Neil Gaiman books which have a unique charm, much like the late Terry Pratchett with whom Gaiman collaborated for Good Omens. Like Pratchett, Gaiman is an author whom I like to read but rarely do outside of the occasional impulse purchase. In the case of Neil Gaiman’s work there has never been a case where I’ve felt anything but satisfaction and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no exception.
The plot starts off rather mundane, with the protagonist returning to his childhood home town for a funeral. Once he arrives he recalls his childhood, which forms the majority of the narrative. It follows him as he meets a girl named Lettie. The story quickly turns to the supernatural when an interdimensional worm escapes through his foot and later takes the form of a woman called Ursula Monkton, who quickly establishes herself amongst the protagonist’s family. She manipulates the entire family against the protagonist, in particular the protagonist’s father whom she seduces. Lettie and her grandmother are actually immortals and deal with Ursula. However they attract the attention of primordial entities called “hunger birds” who wish to eat the protagonist due to a piece of the wormhole Ursula used to enter still being lodged in his heart.
This leads up to a very bittersweet ending. Lettie sacrifices herself to save the protagonist and by the present day she still hasn’t recovered. It is implied as well that the hunger birds did eat the protagonist’s heart, and in reality the protagonist has returned to the farm multiple times before. Like before, the moment he leaves he begins to the forget the events again. However it is implied that his heart is slowly growing back, giving a small glimmer of hope for him.
Throughout the story there were little glimpses of childhood, and at times the story felt like the sort of adventures you would imagine going through as a kid. As a result the story had a nostalgic feel to it. As a kid who frequently imagined adventures like this, the novel resonated with me personally. The characters are also interesting, and there is a humorous charm to them that you can empathise with.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of them novels that defies a solid definition. It’s fantasy, it’s a novel about childhood but most importantly it’s a novel about the disconnection between adulthood and childhood. In some ways the entire novel is symbolic of all those things in your childhood that you forget about. Then you see something that reminds you, only to forget about it again minutes later. Neil Gaiman is truly at the top of his game here, and is definitely one of his stronger works. There is very little wrong with it, something which I find rare when reading these days.
IN A WORD: NOSTALGIC