The Ocean at the End of the Lane, published by William Morrow, is renowned writer Neil Gaiman’s first adult novel since 2005—one many fans and critics have been eager to read for quite a while now. Generally speaking, it’s a short, poignant book that explores the dark spaces of myth, memory, and identity through the experiences of a young boy, recalled by his adult self upon a visit to the place where he grew up—the place where he brushed something larger, more grand and impossible, than himself.
As regular readers of Tor.com might recall, in early March I received an advanced copy of this book and I wrote a spoiler-free review that discussed my immediate reactions after reading it. Mostly, that consisted of exploring the novel in its larger context as well as on a thematic level. Things had to stay a step back and fairly impressionistic; it was three months early, after all. But, now, it’s not early—the book will be on shelves for readers to pounce, purchase, borrow, and wallow around with.
That means I get to return to The Ocean at the End of the Lane with carte blanche, and so here we are: a spoiler review of the novel.
In the previous review, I talked a bit about The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s place in Gaiman’s oeuvre—its similarities to and differences from previous novels such as Coraline—and also its familiar concern with stories, identity-making, and the mythic mode. To sum up, this is a book that works through issues common to Gaiman’s body of writing. However, it does so uniquely, with a paradoxical combination of intimacy (the inclusion of details from Gaiman’s own life) and distance (the removed narrative style) that results in an immersive portrait of an encounter with an enigmatic, numinous power. This is a book that’s doing a lot, in a small space, and that’s something I’d like to get into in a little more depth than I could last time around.
One of the things that allowed me to write such a general initial review—it’s hard to talk about theme for that long without getting into specifics, with most books—is the overarching presence of the inexplicable/metaphysical in the novel. This book has a narrative plot, certainly, but that plot also happens to not be the major focal point of the story. It is instead the vehicle for the novel’s greater concerns with myth and identity. The plot—wherein the man returns to the farm, recalls his supernatural travails as a young boy, and leaves again to go back to his real life with memories once again submerged—is a typical underworld journey sort of thing, as I mentioned last time.
As with many of these types of stories, though, about journeys inside/under reality or the self, the point is not necessarily the details of the journey itself. The point is what comes out of the journey, the lesson or insight the journeyer takes away with them. In this case, the take-away is harder to unravel, and that’s the source of the lingering pleasure I found after having finished the novel the first time. One of these points is given to us rather directly, in the epilogue, when the protagonist asks if he’s passed Lettie’s examination of him. Ginnie Hempstock says in response: “You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.” The other line of the epilogue that gives some sense of the end result of the journey is from the grandmother: “That’s not for you to know.”
Where many texts feel the need to scrabble at direct answers—to explain or make clear or offer simple explanations—Ocean leaves us resting on a poignant, quiet note. The protagonist has forgotten, once again, the brush with ineffable powers that he encountered in his childhood; he’s forgotten that he once decided to die and was rescued by a friend’s sacrifice; he’s forgotten the full moon over the duck pond that’s actually an ocean. And yet—has he? These memories linger, driving, we presume, his art and his life, though subconsciously. There’s a lot to be said, after closing the cover on this book, about the dreaming mind, memory, and loss—and the vast, inexplicable currents of creation that potentially dwell all around us, just out of sight.
Aside from the book’s evocative metaphysical questions, though, the other thing that stuck with me the most from Ocean is the sense of childhood that the book creates: a time of powerlessness and yet deep conviction, of an understanding of the world at once experientially lacking and profoundly deep. Gaiman, who writes books for both children and adults, has for some time displayed a distinct understanding of the perceptive differences between his audiences. As a writer of characters who are children, in novels such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, he has also given stunning examples of writing from the mindset of that child while also telling a story that resonates with adult readers. I would argue, particularly in the context of Ocean, that Gaiman’s writing of and for children is contingent on his willingness to acknowledge the harder, sharper, and more unpleasant aspects of being a child. It’s not peachy and delightful; that’s something that resonates with the adult readers who were themselves, once, children suffering a fairly inexplicable existence in a world that was not, necessarily, made for them or comfortable for them.
The protagonist’s experiences of childhood in Ocean, therefore, have a powerful resonance. Gaiman’s use of a child’s perspective in this novel allows for an open experience of the sort of supernatural otherness that an adult narrator might brush aside—as, inevitably, the protagonist does when he forgets once more and decides his vision of the full moon over the pond is merely a “shadow into the dusk.” This perspective also opens up the adult reader to a world of implication: we understand things that the young protagonist doesn’t, and those things are often disturbing. When he spots his father and Ursula having sex, for example—that’s hair-raising in the context of the story for the adult reader, but the protagonist doesn’t quite get what’s wrong, other than the fact that something is clearly wrong.
Or, in the cases where the protagonist does understand the danger of his own powerlessness, because it is so very clear, the reader is deeply discomfited as well. The memory of the particular helplessness of childhood is strong in Ocean, perhaps the most evocative of the affective resonances in the text. The strongest scenes—those that have stuck with me the most—of this novel aren’t those of the framing narrative, but those involving the protagonist’s experiences of powerlessness. That’s where Ursula comes in; she’s a familiar figure of monstrous danger in the form of a young, attractive woman. (I’d note, here, that both the “bad” and the “good” in Ocean are embodied by women: women who control the multiverse around the young protagonist and his older self alike. Women are, in a very real way, the center of the universe here. Of course, they’re also all strange, powerful, and supernatural—we don’t see much of the protagonist’s perfectly normal mother—which is a potential issue.) Her interactions with the protagonist and his family take the discomfort of the Other Mother in Coraline and ratchet it up to unbearable levels. No one will listen to the protagonist about her true nature, and she taunts and torments him thoroughly.
He seems to have no agency, no ability to stop what is happening to him. That is also true during the most disturbing scene in the book, for me: the near-drowning committed by the protagonist’s father. The description leading up to the attempted drowning is more than disbelieving; the protagonist cannot encompass what is about to happen to him until it’s happening. I found one paragraph particularly chilling in that lead-up:
I looked at him, at the intent expression on his face. He had taken off his jacket before he came upstairs. He was wearing a light blue shirt and a maroon paisley tie. He pulled off his watch on its expandable strap, dropped it onto the window ledge.
That the father has decided to minimize the mess in what he is about to do—that’s the detail that gets me, and it’s that sort of detail that makes the central sections of the novel so intensely uncomfortable and real.
As I’ve noted, though, the viewpoint of a child might be lacking in experience or preparedness for something terrible to happen—but the young protagonist is also capable of deep knowledge of self, a balance that rings true. I found the scene in which he confronts his potential death, at the end, to be both simple and profoundly moving. He is overwhelmed by the knowledge of his likely death, but also attempts to face it:
“Um. I suppose. If I do. Have to die. Tonight,” I started, haltingly, not sure where I was going. I was going to ask for something, I imagine—for them to say goodbye to my mummy and daddy, or to tell my sister that it wasn’t fair that nothing bad ever happened to her: that her life was charmed and safe and protected, while I was forever stumbling into disaster. But nothing seemed right, and I was relieved when Ginnie interrupted me.
Then, later, when it seems to be his world or his life, he decides that—though he does not want to die, and he has developed a real sense of mortality since Ursula came to town—it is worthwhile to sacrifice himself. And, further, after Lettie returns the favor for him, he must consider mortality in a different way: as something that does happen to other people, people whom he cares for. It’s an emotionally wrenching series of scenes, delivered as honestly as they are only through the versatile viewpoint of a young person.
Otherwise, the one complaint I have found myself having about The Ocean at the End of the Lane is that, occasionally, the novel’s usage of the frame of Gaiman’s life for the protagonist’s life becomes too overt in a way that distracts from the narrative world. This is perhaps a unique problem. For a reader who hasn’t been following Gaiman’s writing and blogging and whatnot for nearly a decade, the minor details of the protagonist’s life might not strike them at all. As a member of the other camp, though, I found myself occasionally placed too far back into the “real” world outside the novel—particularly by the sequence in the epilogue where the protagonist discusses his many trips back to the farm with Lettie’s grandmother and mother.
I am on the fence about this complaint, of course, because I also love the inclusion of so much grounding, concrete life detail; it makes for a particularly real-seeming world, which sets off the presence of the otherworldly even more. This is, perhaps, a case of “one dash of salt too many.” It hardly detracts from the narrative, but in a novel that I otherwise found deeply immersive and entangling, even a few brief moments of lost engagement were notable. (I could also say that this is the fault of my education drilling into me the fact that I should always always avoid thinking of the characters in the text as equivalent to the writer of the text. And so the moment the protagonist begins seeming more like the author and less like a protagonist, I have a knee-jerk response of “nope, take a step back, that’s not right.”)
But as a whole—much like I said in the initial review—this is a strong book, with a remarkably dense thematic core that will provide a measure of enjoyment much greater than its diminutive size might suggest. The narrative itself is also full of depth and instances of intense, affective realism, scenes that evoke both imaginable and unimaginable fears and dangers—scenes, too, that tap the unconscious, the deeper self, and hook into what makes the mind tick, what forms the darker nights of the soul for many. It’s a handsomely written book that brings together much of what has drawn me to Gaiman’s work over the years into one place and bundles it tightly, carefully, to make something different and fresh. As an introduction to his work for a new reader, it will certainly give a broad taste of Gaiman’s thematic concerns; as a new novel for old fans, it’s a profound reimagining of those things familiar in his work that also echo in our own minds and dreams.
In short: good job, good book—a real pleasure to read.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is available now from William Morrow.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.