Book Review: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

I remember exactly where I got this book. I was in college in Chicago and Neil Gaiman was doing his book tour at the Music Box Theater. I went with friends and it was so cool to sit in one of my favorite theaters and listen to someone read their work and answer questions. They’d allowed everyone to bring one other book to get signed. I had a copy of Stardust in my dorm so I took that. Our tickets came with the book and it was just a really fun night. It was the second time during my time at college that Neil Gaiman came to Chicago. The first was during One Book One Chicago where they picked Neverwhere as their book. That was also a lot of fun to attend with friends.

I put off reading this book because I wanted to savor it. I usually really enjoy Neil Gaiman’s work. I don’t remember what work of his I was first introduced to but it snowballed. I read all that I could find, usually checking them out from the library growing up. Including Sandman which I loved but never finished. I haven’t read all of his work, but at one time I was pretty close to having read all of it. And I knew I was very excited to dip into this new world.

To me, Neil Gaiman’s world is a darker form of fantasy grounded in reality which I love. I like darker fantasy, where creepy things happen and magic usually exists., it reminds me of the original fairy tales in a way. His work is almost on the cusp of horror if not there outright and it usually leaves me thinking and pondering more about the universe or life after the grand adventure is over.

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is about a man who is driving to his hometown for a funeral. As he’s driving he remembers things that he’s forgotten.

“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

The main character isn’t named. It’s a very close first-person point of view that you barely notice. He’s called boy, sonny, or a pet name of “Handsome George.” But nothing is confirmed as his name. When he meets new people he doesn’t offer his name and there’s many characters whose names we don’t learn, but we learn Lettie Hemstock, his old friend. He goes to the farm Lettie lived on and meets an old woman there who looks at him and remembers him, even though the last time they’d seen each other he was 7 years old and he asks if Lettie is home and she’s not. But he asks if he can go see the duck pond, and she says he can and asks if he can remember the way. He can.

He remembers that Lettie Hemstock was his friend when he was 7 years old, shortly after his 7th birthday. He had a sad-ish birthday party. He’d had no friends outside of books so no one attended his party, but he was given books and a precious kitten that followed him everywhere and he loved very much. But his parents were struggling with money and gave away his room as a boarding space and he remembers being very unhappy with having to share a room with his sister.

“Growing up, I took so many cues from books. They taught me most of what I knew about what people did, about how to behave. They were my teachers and my advisers.”

One of the guests of the boys old room starts the ball of the story rolling by hitting his kitten and giving him a big stray somewhat feral tomcat as an apology. Despite the fact that the personality and age are not the same at all the boy feels he can’t argue about this. And one morning the man who hit his cat dies and during the investigation Lettie Hemstock is at the edge of her drive and says that he (our 7 year old main character) can come stay with them at their house for a bit.

He meets three generations of Hemstock women. Gran, Ginnie, and Lettie. They feed him the best food he’s ever had and talk in strange ways about the investigation. Eventually, his dad gets him and he goes home. But things start getting weird. He’s finding money in weird places, he has a nightmare and wakes up choking on money, so he talks to the Hemstock women which leads him and Lettie on an adventure to find the being trying to help by giving money but going about it in an unhelpful trickster-y fashion. This leads to the boy bringing something dangerous back and his life changes for the worse as he’s pitted against an adult who knows just what to say and how to control the people around him, and read his mind in order to make his life a nightmare with promises to make it worse if she must or even wants to.

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences. I was a child, which meant that I knew a dozen different ways of getting out of our property and into the lane, ways that would not involve walking down our drive.”

This is a short novel but I found it delightful. It felt like the perfect book to start October off with. A little spooky and unnerving, full of adventure and magic. It’s full of the idea that children can be aware of terrifying and horrible things that they don’t think adults would handle well because adults rarely believe children. And then when we grow up we forget all the horrors we knew about. I found it comforting like melancholy nostalgia.

Have you read “The Ocean at the End of the Lane?” What did you think? Do you have any spooky books you’re excited to read this month?

Want to read this book yourself? You can buy it here and support local bookstores.

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