Book review: ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ by Neil Gaiman

Though vigorously marketed as modern fantasy master Neil Gaiman’s first “adult novel” since 2005’s “Anansi Boys,” “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” in fact has more in common with Gaiman’s recent “young adult” and “children’s” novels.

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman. William Morrow, 181 pp. $25.99
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman. William Morrow, 181 pp. $25.90

 With the exception of a couple of cursory scenes of (extremely) mild adult sexuality — if it can even be called that; it’s poorly understood by the young protagonist, and not nearly as damaging as when Faulkner’s Joe Christmas witnesses something more intense — this is perfectly acceptable reading for intelligent readers of almost any age.

The only surprise is that Gaiman himself decided to call it an adult novel rather than labeling with the boundary dissolving, useful conceit he often uses, “a novel for all ages.” But with Gaiman, that’s no reason to shy away, no matter how “mature” a reader you think you are.

Scary? Oh, yes. In that quietly creepy, British-y sort of way of Gaiman’s, just as in his Kipling pastiche, “The Graveyard Book,” and the genuinely unsettling “children’s book,” “Coraline.” Like much of his best work, in fact, this slim new tale dives deeply into the murky waters of childhood fears and insecurities.

Perhaps this accidental novel — Gaiman set out to write a short story illuminating his childhood to his wife, musician Amanda Palmer — earned the “adult” label in Morrow’s marketing department because its narrator is a grownup. It’s also the author’s most personal book, a sometimes heart-rending look at loneliness and alienation of youth.

The narrator is back in his old Sussex neighborhood for a funeral (we never learn whose) when he begins poking around and remembering a strange incident lifted from Gaiman’s actual childhood: a “lodger” committed suicide in the family’s white Mini at the bottom of the lane.

That, it turns out, has opened a rather nasty door into a much larger reality, where danger awaits. But it’s also the bridge to the 7-year-old narrator’s innocent friendship with 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock and her curious mother and grandmother, who live yet further down the lane. And when the boy breaks a promise to Lettie, he inadvertently allows something terrible and terrifying into his world.

Miss Ursula Monkton, the new “childminder” — Britishisms can sound so disturbing, all on their own — echoes the button-eyed Other Mother in “Coraline,” a seemingly human creature full of ill-will toward an uncomprehending child.

The boy instantly recognizes the malice in Ursula, who earns favor from his little sister and others by throwing money about — “Everybody wants money,” she says flatly — and his father by promises of a different kind of transaction. The young narrator is responsible for bringing this monster into his world, and therefore at some level responsible for the cold, shocking brutality she inspires.

But Gaiman fans won’t be surprised to learn that Ursula is not the end of the story. The Hempstocks are Glinda to the malign western powers here — and that’s no spoiler. Gaiman may not always be the most complex writer, but sometimes he has knack for brilliantly knocking the reader off his feet. Yet unlike some of his best work — the novel “American Gods” and short story “A Study in Emerald” come to mind — this tale isn’t particularly twisty or turny.

Still, it is filled with gems small and large. The Hempstocks — whoever and whatever they may be — are an eternal delight, and the boy’s rather existential plunge into the eponymous “ocean” is a strange and strangely moving trip, indeed.

 But the really interesting question is, is this new “all ages” novel even fantasy? For certain it draws heavily and movingly from the author’s very real sense of loneliness as a very human child. But is it more akin to “The Turn of the Screw” and “Life of Pi” or Gaiman’s earlier work, epitomized by “Neverwhere”? Only the reader herself can answer that question, and that makes for a different kind of experience, even as the novel walks some of the same mythical paths as his earlier work.

 Gaiman inspires almost fanatical devotion from his readers. He signed some 2,000 books for fans who began lining up 12 hours before his appearance at Denver’s Tattered Cover book store in June — all with an entirely friendly, accessible demeanor. The novel also rocketed to the top of The New York Times bestseller list the week it was published. 

 One suspects the devotion he inspires may be born as much from his clear understanding and empathy for a certain kind of childhood experience as his body of work, which began with “Sandman,” the graphic novel series. Unlike some of his terrifying fictional ur-parents, he always seems to have a kind or funny word for everyone. He is, to put it bluntly, incredibly likable and with such credit he has earned the undying favor of many an adult who suffered life as a bright and misunderstood child.

In “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” Gaiman walks a fine and fascinating line between reality and fantasy, survival and terror, love and alienation. It’s a quick read, but a worthy one, no matter your age.