Oh, God, I loved this book. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is definitely my favorite Neil Gaiman novel. (If you’re wondering what my least favorite is, it’s Good Omens, which is funny because Gaiman co-wrote it with another of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett. But that’s another story.) My first Gaiman was Stardust, which I adored. This one has a lot in common with it, at least with the boundary between real and fantasy, but Gaiman often uses such a boundary. (I should note that it’s been several years since I’ve read Stardust, so my memory is hazy.)
Ocean is like a kids’ book that isn’t for kids. It’s a nostalgic fairy tale that makes you recall what you felt like so long ago, bringing back that hazy memory that you’re not sure was real. I have one of those: one night when I was five or six, just after my first great grandmother had died (the first family death of which I was conscious), I have a clear memory of her ghost floating above my bed. I was convinced for years that I had actually seen her, but the farther I get into adulthood, now that reality has a much stronger hold, I’m not sure anymore – and now I’m convinced it was a childhood hallucination of sorts. I also never told any adults about it, simply because there were things you didn’t tell adults since you knew they wouldn’t believe you, anyway. I identify with this kid.
So. The novel is about an (unnamed) adult who goes back to his hometown for a funeral. He dreads it, so he wanders back to his childhood home, and then, farther on, to the end of the lane, where he meets an old friend, and his childhood memories come alive. He is seven years old. An opal dealer steals his father’s car, drives it down to the end of the lane, and commits suicide in the back seat. The police calls the boy’s dad, and they both go. During the investigation, the boy meets Lettie Hempstock, an eleven-year-old girl who lives on a nearby farm (and who is really older than creation), and he follows her on an adventure to the fantastic – but accidentally brings it back with him, causing all sorts of trouble.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an intense, nostalgic look back at childhood, regret, and memory of what might or might not have happened. The world feels real, and so do the characters. It’s one of those books I didn’t want to leave, and once it was over, I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Ocean belongs next to The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly, another one I haven’t read in a long time but which has a similar premise and the same sort of dreamy, nostalgic atmosphere. I think I’ll be reading that one again, soon, and Ocean will be in my re-read pile along with it. Ocean is a beautiful novel, and I think Gaiman has outdone himself with this one.
Bonus: I was just tipped off to an entry in Nail Gaiman’s blog that mentions what became this novel:
I’m writing a story about Lettie Hempstock. Who may be distantly related to Daisy Hempstock in Stardust and Liza Hempstock in The Graveyard Book.