The Ocean at the End of the Lane was my second foray into Neil Gaiman's novels. I greatly respect him as an author - for a variety of reasons - but I'm afraid Ocean disappointed my expectations.
To briefly set the scene, an middle-aged, unnamed narrator leaves a funeral (presumably a family member's) and drives back to the lane where his childhood home once stood. Driving [literally] "down memory lane," he comes to the old Hempstock farm at the end. He then remembers Lettie Hempstock and a long-forgotten week in his childhood that changed everything. The rest of the novel is told as a sort of prolonged flashback of what occurred.
Being that it's Gaiman, the novel's commentary on life and memory is beautiful. I also appreciated several of the characters - especially Lettie. But this was the first book I've read in a long time where I preferred the style and characters to the plot. At first slightly dull, by the mid-point of the novel I was rather disturbed. If it weren't for my respect for the author and the book's multiple recommenders [like Patrick Rothfuss's delightful review / fantasy of tree-fort parties with Gaiman and Whedon], I may not have kept reading. But I am glad I did, because I think the 2nd half was better.
As for my dislikes, I can pinpoint a couple of things.
- I can only stand a character being oppressed without agency for so long, and, for such a short book, this 7-year-old boy dealt with agony upon agony - not even anything noble and epic, just meanness and the frustrated plans of a 7-year-old.
- There were physical descriptions that were just gross. And there's just something with me and feet wounds - they make me extra queazy. [Also, fyi, some adult content.]
- Sometimes I think I'm an immature reader for thinking this, but... I do not love magic realism - and most of this book is magic realism. I think it's because I love fantasy so much that this feels watered down. I don't mind things being open-ended and left unexplained, but there's something just wonderful about entering the fantastical through a wardrobe or a police box or a train platform, rather than just gradually slipping into unreality without noticing. I suppose it may have to do with characters generally unquestioning acceptance of magic-realism elements. The narrator here asks a few questions, but in fantasy, when one enters another realm, they are very much aware of it and their curiosity mirrors my own. Anyway, parts of the magic in this book were wonderful, but, again, most of them occurred in the 2nd half.
A few general closing comments... This book felt like one I would have read in my English Honors class - both because of its theme (memory) and the focus on better style than substance. I do think that the kind of excellent style Gaiman displays makes the book worth reading, just perhaps not as enjoyable. In the end, I think I expected either more of a reveal or an impossibly brilliant ending [or that it was actually all a dream]. Highlights of the book included its intertextuality, Lettie's character, stunning metaphors for faith, and, we'll just say, the scene "in the Ocean." Overall? *** out of 5 stars.
I believe the book would stand up even better to a 2nd reading, but I'll have to save that for later. Off to new worlds - I'll just leave you with these quotes:
“I lay on the bed and lost myself in stories. I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyways.”
“I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were.”
“Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.”
“You don't pass or fail at being a person, dear.”
“How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know."