I’m a bit late getting onto Neil Gaiman’s latest offering. A slim 178-page novel published in June 2013, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a melancholy tale of a man who returns to his childhood neighbourhood and becomes swallowed in memories of eerie events that took place forty years ago. The book has been well-received by critics and readers alike.
Is Ocean a fantasy novel? It certainly has fantasy elements, but I’d probably describe it as a work of magical realism. Is it an adult’s book or a children’s book? I believe the target audience was adult, but the way it reads certainly puts me in mind of two of Gaiman’s works aimed at younger audiences, Coraline and The Graveyard Book. According to Gaiman, Ocean grew out of a short story into a deeper and more complex tale.
The protagonist reflects on events that are haunting and sinister, and the line between fact and fantasy is persistently blurry. That everything is seen through the eyes of a child adds a layer of poignancy and powerlessness. There is a villain, who is villainous in both real-world and fantastical ways. There are the three remarkable women who live at the end of the lane, who are practical and yet powerful in indescribable ways.
Gaiman’s voice is that of a child; the prose is unembellished and he writes with simplicity, creating an air of spookiness and letting the events drive the story. He fills the reader with a curious blend of horror and beauty.
I think what made this book were the small touches: the details that remind you of being a child. The loss of a comic book; the pure joy of a delicious meal; the dread of shadows in the night. What I didn’t like about it was the ambiguity and the lack of resolution. Now, don’t get me wrong. Most of the time I relish the beauty of ambiguity, but this time, there wasn’t enough resolution to satisfy me. What of the conflict between the narrator and his father? What of his absent mother and annoying sister? Is it implied that everyone just sort of fades away into adulthood and later life? And maybe I’m missing something, but whose funeral is he attending?!?
Better to approach this book as a short story, I think. No character really changes all that much. It is a chilling and elegant tale, a slice of the past, an unsettling blend of fantasy and reality.