The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve read a few of Neil Gaiman’s other works and enjoyed them immensely, although I’ll admit that I haven’t gotten around to reading American Gods or Anansi Boys at the time of this review. In fact, the only book of his marketed to adults that I’ve read is Stardust.
This makes The Ocean at the End of the Lane an odd duck. While it’s being marketed as an adult novel, with the exception of a couple of suggestive scenes, it has a very young adult feel to it. Or, if anything, like the kind of young adult novel that gets banned from school libraries in the southern states for those suggestive scenes.
Told through the memories of a middle-aged man remembering the story through the eyes of his 7-year self, The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows him as he befriends Lettie Hempstock and her family, who are…different. Different in that they seem to exist in our world and in others at the same time. When a being from another world/reality begins to meddle in ours, Lettie and the boy set out to stop it, but the adventure leads to worse and even life-threatening problems.
Again, this book is odd in that I’m not sure exactly who Gaiman’s target audience really was. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a wonderful modern fairytale, but at the same time, there are mixed messages about who this book is for. It feels like a cross between Stardust and The Graveyard Book. Not a bad mix, but still confusing. In that regard, this book has strong literary merit, in potentially reigniting the ongoing debate about what makes a young adult novel different from an adult novel. First, the protagonist is a child, as his is close friend. Secondly, and probably unfairly, it is a sort of fairytale. That, in and of itself, doesn’t make a young adult novel, but it does carry a stigma of being for younger readers. However, Gaiman crosses the line to adult novel with sexually suggestive scenes involving the boy’s father and the nanny, Ursula Monkton. This is probably a debate that would better be discussed by literary scholars rather just a reviewer, but it is something to consider.
The characters themselves are interesting. While the boy is generally not the most likable of characters and is rather cowardly, he does redeem himself, and more importantly, he’s identifiable. His serious flaws actually make him supremely real in a way that most people will likely find themselves identifying with him at some point in their lives. The Hempstocks are a classic mythological archetype, whether you want to consider them the Fates, the Norns, or whatever, but they work well in this way and in their relationship with each other and the world. If I have to fault the characters at all, it’s that the parents of the boy come off as supremely unlikable, to put it mildly. The come off as cold and uncaring about the boy. There’s not much, if anything, to redeem them, and I would have liked a tad more development on those characters to at least make them less problematic.
It’s still a short and charming story, although not as charming as Stardust. It has interesting characters and a wonderful story that’s definitely worth taking a look at.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane earns 4 buckets of ocean out of 5.