When I was in grad school, I wrote a paper on the evolution of the portrayal of death in children’s literature, featuring Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I presented the paper for a class and at a conference, and as a result became “the Neil Gaiman girl.” People wanted to talk to me about which of his books were their favorite. They E-mailed me links to articles and interviews they thought I would like. It somehow became a part of my identity, despite the fact that I had read very little Gaiman. But, as one sometimes does, I tried to make the title fit. I read through a bunch of Neil Gaiman books. Some I liked okay and some I wasn’t crazy about, but none of them really made my heart sing. So I gave up, and I haven’t read Neil Gaiman since.
Then The Ocean at the End of the Lane showed up on a recommended reading list for me. And then another list. And then friends started talking about it. And I skipped over it every time, because I had given up on Gaiman. Until finally, one time, I paused before scrolling past it. I looked at the cover. I read the description. And I was intrigued. And since I hadn’t hated the Gaiman books I had read before, I figured it was worth at least giving it a shot.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the story of a seven year old boy in England who lives down the lane from a strange household. Lettie, the youngest in the household, is eleven. She is still a child, but much older – almost adult-like – in the eyes of the little boy. She lives with her mother and her grandmother, and all three of them have some degree of supernatural powers and otherworldiness. The little boy experiences a traumatic event with some bizarre supernatural consequences, and these women act as his guides/protectors through the aftermath of the event. I won’t go into more detail than that, because I really had no idea where the plot was going as I read, and I feel like going through it blindly enhanced my experience.
The most bizarre and fascinating part of this book is the perspective. The adult narrator is recounting his memories of events that happened when he was seven. We see it all through the eyes of this young boy, and I feel like Gaiman does a great job of capturing that childlike mind. There are things the narrator doesn’t question than an adult certainly would, and things that the narrator notices and cares about that an adult probably wouldn’t. As a result, there’s an almost dream-like feeling to the book: things that should be weird aren’t, and things that shouldn’t be important are.
I think this perspective is well done; however, I am not saying that it feels natural or easy. It’s very deliberate, and I would even say heavy-handed. The narrator constantly comments on his child-self’s perceptions of adults. Adults don’t believe what he has to say, adults know more than children, adults are more powerful than children, and so forth. These kinds of comments are pretty densely scattered throughout the book. In fact, I would say the heart of the book is this tension between a child’s view and an adult’s view of the world. Or, perhaps more accurately, the tension between a child’s view of adults and an adult’s view of adults. The book is really just providing tools – beautiful, interesting tools – for illustrating this tension. But the child is believable, and I think most people will remember thinking the same kinds of thoughts he thinks about adults. So even though it’s heavy-handed, it still triggers a kind of bittersweet nostalgia.
The nostalgia is a double-edged sword though. First,the reader has to be old enough for that nostalgia to really take root, so despite the young age of the protagonist, I would not call this a children’s book. There are some moments that are not entirely child-friendly, but more than that, I suspect a lot of children would be bored. Second, for some people the nostalgia might be a little much; some readers will probably find the constant reflections on childhood overly sentimental.
On a more technical note, I would say that the frame story, which is integral to the perspective and tone, is on the weaker side. For the commentary on childhood and adulthood to work, the narrator has to be an adult. For the childlike perspective to work, the narrator has to be a child. The Ocean at the End of the Lane tries to walk this line by having an adult narrator who had previously forgotten these events from his childhood, and who is now reliving the memories. It mostly works. It sets the stage well enough to allow for the necessary dual-perspective, at least. The frame story never really develops though. You have a few page at the beginning and end to show you that the adult side of the narrator exists, but there’s nothing to really make you care about this adult version of the character. It felt tacked on to allow for the perspective, and it made the ending of the book a little awkward and less satisfying.
I have one additional complaint with the book. I want to warn you that the next couple of paragraphs contain mild spoilers, although I’ll try to keep it vague. There is a period of time in the book where the narrator’s father is influenced by the villain, but it is impossible to tell to what degree. The father does some terrible things during this time, but we don’t see that much of the father before or after. I ended up really confused about his character. Was the father actually already awful, and the villain’s influence just enhanced that part of his character? Or was the father mostly okay, and the villain’s influence completely changed him?
His behavior was extreme enough that I feel like this is a really important distinction in understanding the main character. If the father is awful, I could read this story as a metaphorical escape. In that situation, you could make a case for the father as the true villain of the story. If the father is okay, then the other villain is even more wicked and powerful. It’s two entirely different readings of the book, and I was frustrated that I never had a clear view on who the father was when he wasn’t being supernaturally influenced. This didn’t significantly bother me while reading the story, but bothers me a lot in my reflection back on it.
This book still didn’t make my heart sing, and I think it’s safe to say that I probably won’t ever really be “the Neil Gaiman girl.” However, I did enjoy The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It was beautiful; the language, the tone, and the overall rhythm all jived in a way that was appealing and evocative. That beauty was not at the expense of the storytelling, though. The plot was intriguing and the pacing was slow enough to let me enjoy the aesthetics, but fast enough to keep my interest. I can’t say this is something I’m likely to ever pickup and reread, and it didn’t completely captivate me, but I absolutely enjoyed reading it once.
Overall score: 4/5