“I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates beyond the real. I saw all of these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is acclaimed author Neil Gaiman’s most recent release. Famed for his brilliant, effortless creativity and unclassifiable novels, The Ocean is gentle, for him. Yes, it includes witches and earth-devouring monsters, but at its roots it is really a tale about childhood, and what it means to be young.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the tale of a young, seven-year-old boy, whose name we never actually learn. The eponymous ocean is that of the Hempstocks, the strange family that lives down the road from his family, at the end of the lane. When a South African opal miner kills himself on their street, he awakens forces better left untouched. Because our narrator is down at the Hempstocks at precisely the wrong time, the youngest Hempstock (she claims she’s eleven, but how long she’s been eleven for remains unknown) takes him with her to go and get rid of a “flea” from the land behind their farmhouse. She hides in our narrator’s foot so he brings her back to the real world, where she proceeds to make his life as miserable as she can. When the boy tries to go to the Hempstocks for help, things escalate to a level beyond the imaginings of even the books our protagonist loves so much.
Gaiman’s understanding of childhood is lovely; the fact that it is (very) loosely based off of events of his own childhood (the back cover is actually a picture of him) certainly helps in this instance. Once again, he proves that the fluidity and creativity of his prose is nearly unmatched, the effortless uniqueness of his writing can be awe-inspiring at its peak. Gaiman easily shows what it means to be a child, all the while telling a story of ancient magic and power.
Our narrator is a perfect character, completely realistic and surprisingly childlike. I never once doubted that he could exist, and I suspect that Mr. Gaiman used himself as a model when writing him. The Hempstocks are 100% Gaiman, plain, unassuming people who just happen to wield more power than anyone in the world. They are proud, a bit stubborn, and very human. Brilliant. And Ursula Monkton (the villain, as if you couldn’t tell from her name) is horribly creepy, leaping out of the pages of the book through Gaiman’s vibrant description. A really well-assembled villain, she evokes many different emotions as the book moves on, anywhere from hatred to pity.
The plot, despite the fact that Earth is very nearly destroyed, is really quite small. The book is not a long one, and everything moves along rather quickly and simply. There is no elaborate problem solving, as in many of Gaiman’s other works; instead this book is character-driven through and through. It was all very simple, ultimately. There were lovely characters, and the interactions were spot on, but the plot was very… bare.
And that is my one complaint. I wish more time had been taken to flesh out the plot, and the setting. Who are the Hempstocks, really? Where did they come from? I wanted to more about fleas and varmints, to know why they are what they are. I wanted a more detailed, expansive description of the world, and I wanted a more detailed, expansive plot. I know this book originally started out as a short story, and maybe that was the problem. Mr. Gaiman was trying to make it short and sweet, but all that ended up happening was that we lost a little something.
In conclusion, this book is not Gaiman’s finest work, but still well worth a read, especially if you already know that you like him. It has his beautiful prose and realistic characters, but it lacks the intrigue and development that his better books have. A solidly good book.
Final Rating: 7.5/10