Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a dream-like mixture of the mundane and the magical

BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of Good Omens has put Neil Gaiman back in the spotlight, which means now’s a great time to revisit the acclaimed English author’s impressive back catalogue. What to choose, though? The easy choice would be his award-winning novel American Gods or his ground-breaking DC/Vertigo comic book series Sandman, however, there’s not much to be said about either of those that hasn’t already been said.

So instead, let’s take a look back Gaiman’s most recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. At only 178 pages, it’s hardly the scribe’s longest work, but it nevertheless ranks among his very best thanks to its winning blend of lyrical beauty and raw insight.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with an unnamed narrator sitting by a duck pond (or is it an ocean) reminiscing about long-forgotten events from his childhood. He recalls his friendship with kind-hearted yet enigmatic 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock and how together they confronted monsters both human and supernatural – including his sinister housekeeper, Ursula Monkton – and how it changed his life forever.

“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled.”

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

First and foremost, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a cracking yarn. Gaiman is a natural storyteller and sucks readers in with an authorial voice that’s both conversational and poetic. What’s more, thanks to Gaiman’s strong grasp of the magical realism genre, the novel is paradoxically dream-like and grounded, deftly melding relatable, real-world characters and settings in a way that feels natural, but more importantly, rings true on an emotional level.

That’s arguably where The Ocean at the End of the Lane shines brightest: in the human truths that Gaiman shares with us. Whether it’s charting the gulf between childhood and maturity – what children can understand (magic) and what they can’t (sex) – or observing how our identities sharpen with age (even as our memories fade), Gaiman uses the fantastical elements of the narrative to tell a disarmingly relatable story.

“Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.”

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Heck, even The Ocean at the end of the Lane’s more ethereal passages are tethered to decidedly human concerns. When characters’ human forms eventually give way to silken sheets filled with flickering candles and rotting canvas tents, it’s more than mere whimsy on Gaiman’s part. It’s a powerful comment about how limited our perception of the world (and the people in it) really is.

And it’s this quality – this rare combination of imaginative dark fantasy and soulful consideration – that ultimately makes The Ocean at the End of the Lane yet another fine example of Gaiman’s singular talents as a storyteller.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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