The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman.
So I’ve been on a huge Neil Gaiman binge lately. It sort of started when Norse Mythology came out, as I just absolutely loved it and was sad I finished it in just an afternoon. And for a while I’ve been meaning to just read more and more of Gaiman’s graphic novels, as I have almost all of them (if not all of them, I don’t quite remember—I’ve got an Amazon wishlist of all the miscellaneous harder-to-find books of his I still need to get, haha), but haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. Mostly that’s because I love them so much I enjoy reading them when I’m in a bit of a reading slump, but more recently I’ve just wanted to read them all right now.
So I read a few graphic novels after Norse Mythology, took a bit of a break and got on a Star Wars binge (which I’ll be writing about soon), and then read American Gods: Shadows #1 (review here), aaaand once more just really needed more Gaiman.
Another big part of that was that I (at this point of having just read American Gods #1) was about to see Gaiman perform a reading at Sagerstrom Concert Hall in Southern California (which was utterly amazing and I loved), so that sort of gave me more motivation. The next big binge came with reading the entirety of American Gods in a single day (my third reread). It was the first day of my spring break, I had no work, and once I started it in the morning I knew I just couldn’t stop—so 13 hours later I finished. I was going to write a review of that immediately (and it’s about half way done), but decided I might wait until the show comes out, so they sort of go together.
Three days later, still on my Gaiman high from reading American Gods in a day, my girlfriend and I saw him in person! Unfortunately we didn’t get to meet him, as he didn’t do a signing, but it was still great hearing him in person.
After that I decided to re-read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which unfortunately took me about a week mostly just because I then did other stuff for the rest of my spring break and just had less time to read. But I finally finished it (my second time reading it) and absolutely loved it once again. So of course I have to talk about it!
I also want to give some background on my history with this book. It originally came out right around the same time that I started falling in love with Neil Gaiman in general. I read his Sandman series first, as I was getting a lot into comics, and loved it so much I just had to read more of his work.
I don’t remember the exact order I read things, but as I said, Ocean came out right around the time I was becoming obsessed, and because of that I was incredibly excited for it, and remember buying it from Barnes & Noble and reading it all the same day. And I loved it. It drew me to tears, and I just instantly fell in love with the main character and the universe Gaiman introduced.
In that way, it was the first Gaiman story that affected me so much. For example, I remember American Gods not affecting me not quite as much the first time I read it (though now it’s probably my favorite—more on that in my review of it later), but Ocean affected me right off the bat. Maybe it’s because of how much I saw myself in the main character (who loves books, has an active imagination, etc.), but at this exact point I just knew exactly how much I loved Gaiman.
It’s also one of the books I sort of forgot the most. I remembered my emotions toward it, and that it was about a guy who goes back to his childhood home for a funeral and then remembers his childhood when he met a strange girl, but that was about it.
Upon rereading it, though, I think in many ways that’s a positive thing, as the book deals a lot with memory and it very much builds as it goes along. As such, it’s hard to talk about it without going into spoiler territory, so I won’t be able to talk about it as thoroughly as I’d like, but I have to mention some of the more general features I love.
One last thing, though, about my background, is when I got hired at Barnes & Noble last summer they asked me what book I wanted to recommend (at B&N every bookseller is supposed to have a book that they try to sell 100 copies of). I knew I was going to choose a Gaiman novel, and ultimately I decided on Ocean. But I’m not 100% why, as like I said I didn’t completely remember it, and I knew American Gods was the more “impressive” work, and Stardust might be the better choice because it’s almost a YA book (which are incredibly popular right now), or the Graveyard Book because it can be sold to both kids and adults, etc.
But I remembered my emotional attachment to Ocean, and I just felt like it was a good Gaiman book to start with. And after reading it again, I think that’s still true, because it really does contain all of the Gaimanesque elements.
The writing is very much centered in the real world, as most of Gaiman’s work is—and in fact, it’s one of the things I love so much about his work. Fantasy worlds like Middle-earth, Westeros, etc. are amazing and I love them too, but I love the way that Gaiman fuses fantasy worlds with the real world.
And that is very much so seen here, and has a slow burn to it so that the reader can get attached to the main character and general plot beforehand. In fact, the book is almost half and half, where the first half only has a few fantastical elements to it (or rather, ones that are not quite as obvious), and then becomes very weird very quickly. And it’s amazing in that way, broadening the appeal.
Specifically, I think it’s a good way for new readers to get acquainted with Gaiman’s writing, as the literary quality of the first half draws one in before infusing the classic Gaiman mythological and fairy tale elements into it.
It also definitely crosses different “types” of books that Gaiman writes—sure, toward the end it gets into the “American Gods” type of book, deeply seeped with fantasy, but it’s also shorter, less obviously based on myths, and again all centered on the young boy who (hopefully) the reader already identifies with.
And because it centers on the boy, and is very much about his view of the world, it mirrors in many ways The Graveyard Book or Coraline, showing how amazingly Gaiman understands childhood and his strength at writing for children. And it even mirrors Neverwhere and Stardust in some ways, as there’s an “other world” right next to our own.
He plays with dreams in this novel, reminiscent of Morpheus and the Sandman comics, there’s frightening/creepy/unsettling scenes, reminding me of Coraline and The Wolves in the Walls and MirrorMask and many of his short stories, and of course there’s an obvious love for mythology, which can be found in every Gaiman work. It’s also a mystery in many ways, as the reader is struggling to understand what’s real just as the main character is.
And what an amazing character he is. Sure, I’m completely biased because he’s a book lover and so am I, but I just love that innocence about him, how in love with books he is, how very real he seems, in this fantasy-seeped world.
So overall I truly do believe it’s a fantastic starting point for Gaiman. Because if there’s any bit of the novel you liked, there’s another novel that also utilizes that one thing you liked. And it’s a very short, quick read, and thereby far less daunting than the (beautiful) behemoth that is American Gods.
Yes, highly recommended. Gaiman has shown his brilliance time and again, but this book was particularly striking. From living in books (something I can definitely relate to), to nostalgia and reflection, all wrapped around an underlying fantasy setting, Gaiman portrays the hardship of life, remembering, relationships, discovery, vulnerability, and more in a truly wonderful short novel.