Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

ocean at the end of the lane banner art showing a young girl floating under water

Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is the first adult novel he’s published in years, and one that was, according to him, quite accidental. He wrote it for his wife, Amanda Palmer, while she was away on tour, but initially it was just supposed to a short story. Then it kept growing. It’s definitely a happy accident, because Ocean is quite an interesting read. One thing I should warn you about this book, though: it will make you hungry. And possibly cry, but mostly I felt hungry because there is so much food being eaten that I had to make myself some cheese toast just to get by.

Food cravings aside, this is a very personal story, and I don’t just refer to the fact that it was inspired by the author’s own life. It speaks to the most personal part of ourselves: our childhood memories. This book starts out when the unnamed main character goes back to his childhood neighborhood and remembers an incident that he had forgotten about. At the very heart of this book is the intersection of memory and childhood, exploring how it felt to be a child and how our memories of that time can fade. But there’s something else that struck me about this book that spoke to me on a personal level.

Ocean at the End of the Lane book coverPerhaps not every child did this, but I have always entertained myself with wild stories in my own mind, often imagining a dull and boring situation that I’m stuck in to suddenly be set upon by something fantastical. My childhood memories are a mix of reality and the fantasies that I always wished reality actually was. This book comments on that, showing the difference between what happened and what we imagined happening, and then quietly blurring the line between the two. The unnamed main character at first remembered his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock leaving for Australia when he was a child, but as the story unfolds he remembers that something else, something far more sinister and unbelievable, happened instead. Which memory was real and which imagination? The answer is implied, but I think you could interpret it in multiple ways.

And that’s the thing about this book. If you read it literally, then it’s a fascinating tale about a magical and ancient family that lets a young boy into their lives, however briefly. But if you look at it metaphorically, it becomes something else entirely, something bigger, something deeper, like the duck pond in the Hempstock’s yard suddenly holding an entire ocean. It’s a metaphor for how children see the world, how they see the many hidden possibilities, and how they can shape that world with their imagination. You can see this story as one boy’s extraordinary childhood or how all children try to imagine their childhoods as extraordinary.

Though it didn’t quite turn out to be what I had expected, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. If you’re a Gaiman fan, then this should be an excellent addition to your collection, and if you’ve never read him before then this might be just the book to start with. It’s dark but magical, sad at times but also filled with hope, just like the journey through childhood itself can be.