I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were (53).
Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel(la) concerns a boy whose world turns fantastic and terrible after the suicide of a lodger.
Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
First published in June 2013
Mythology meanders. It speaks to a diversity of age groups and across the ages. Strange details attach and grow on the mythic tale, which becomes encrusted with unexplained details and unexpected interpretations. Neil Gaiman’s writing resembles myth, and his most famous works feature complex, meandering plots. A narrative thread runs throughout The Sandman, but the work defies simple summary, as it grows from horror comic to surreal adventure to the World Fantasy Award-Winner. Shakespeare, Superman, and the waitress at the twenty-four hour diner, coexist. American Gods also wanders and grows, throwing in details that defy mundane explanation.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, makes the most sense as a contemporary mythic tale. A man returns to his childhood haunts and recalls a tale, blocked from memory, of the time dark forces invaded his life, and of the mysterious neighbours who interceded.
1. Of all the dangers faced by the narrator, the most disturbing and vivid involves his father, turned against him by a sinister creature—the same creature he dug from his foot when it wore the form of a worm. The scene of plausible (if, in context, supernaturally guided) abuse proves far more powerful than the worm.
“You come back sometimes,” she said. “You were here once when you were twenty-four, I remember. You had two children and you were so scared. You came here before you left this part of the world: you were, what, in your thirties, then? I fed you a good meal in the kitchen, and you told me about your dreams and the art you were making”(173).
“You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.” (175)
2. The ending provides a fascinating reminiscence on the paths life takes, and the power of memory, dreams, people, and places, recalled and understood only with the passage of time.
The central character does too little to confront the dangers he faces or advance the plot. I grant, he’s a young boy, and Gaiman captures the sense of helplessness one often feels in childhood, surrounded by far more powerful people and forces. The protagonist of a fantasy, however, should do more than wait around for his powerful friends to save him. This approach probably would have worked in a short story, but here it marred my ability to fully engage the text.
Originality: 2/6 The story features some original elements but, really, it reads like Gaiman has been raiding Gaiman. The basic plot has strong parallels with the superior Graveyard Book, and the story and characters would not have been out of place in The Sandman.
Imagery: 6/6 Gaiman remains a superior writer capable of evoking real and fantastic imagery with equal skill. A man commits suicide; someone nearly chokes on coins; a worm takes up residence in a boy’s foot.
Story: 4/6 This makes for an intriguing, quick read, but I’m baffled by the degree of praise it has received, and often from significant and weighty names with whom I’m loathe to disagree. Gaiman has written some excellent, groundbreaking work, and this book doesn’t compare favorably with them.
Characterization: 5/6 Gaiman has a remarkable capacity to capture the perspectives of childhood. I also enjoyed his characterization of the Triple Goddess. The villain seems rather generic, and no one stands out as memorably as the characters in, say, Coraline.
Emotional Response: 4/6 Gaiman has penned an uneven book that probably would have worked better as the short story he originally conceived it to be.
Editing: 6/6 The author’s prose style, always strong, has only improved.
Overall score: 5/6 I have a difficult time categorizing this book. It has been marketed as a sort of faerie tale for adults, but, barring one or two sequences of adult content, it reads like a disturbing children’s novel that might be enjoyed by all ages, in the manner of Coraline.
In total, The Ocean at the End of the Lane receives 32/42