The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of those cult writers who I always think I would really, really like, I just have to read more of his books as so far the number of them that I have read is a little paltry. When it comes to authors of that stature, and being a relative ‘Neil-newbie’, it almost makes me feel fraudulent it write about his latest ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ – one of the most hyped/anticipated/buzzed about books of the year and one I read for the Not The Booker Prize. I am also rather nervous because whilst it is a book I really enjoyed reading, it is one that had a few niggles for me on occasional, let me explain (before all the Gaiman fans come and hunt me down for blasphemy)…

Headline Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ is a book about memory and imagination and how these develop or fade as we grow up. It is also a corking story about a young boy, who starts the novel as an old (and unnamed) man, and one particular summer in his childhood when he met Lettie Hempstock. As a young boy his life was quite mundane, he was a bit of a bookish loner, and his family were ‘getting by’. One day they take in a lodger, who runs over the kitten and then kills himself in his car – not a spoiler as this happens very near the start – and it is during this debacle that the young lad finds himself being looked after by Lettie and her mother and grandmother while the police sort everything out. It is at this point that something magical is introduced into his life (at one point quite literally) and it is also when the greatest darkness comes as a new lodger, Ursula Monkton, arrives to change everything for the worse, if she can.

You might roll your eyes at what I am about to write, or think ‘oh for goodness sake why tell us about this book’, but I have to admit all the fantastical elements of this book really didn’t gel so well for me. I really liked Ursula as a villain (though she did feel very similar to the Other Mother in ‘Coraline’ at times) yet I couldn’t conjure her as the tent/marquee/thing that we first meet. I liked the hunger birds very much but the whole worm thing (even though it was brilliantly squeamish) didn’t work for me either. I couldn’t quite get it to 100% form itself in my head. Most of all though I didn’t really get ‘the Ocean’ of the title, apart from just after the denouement when it was so needed – no spoilers – as I didn’t see the point to it overall yet it is the title feature. Also did anyone else understand why the suicide at the start leads to Ursula/the worm/tent appearing? I think I missed that, or maybe it just was there because it was there? So why do, after saying all that especially about the ocean, I then think people should read it? Well…

Firstly when Gaiman writes in the ‘real world’ the book is very emotive, reminiscent and nostalgic. The scene with the bath was actually quite upsetting, as was the whole scene with his dad and Ursula by the fireplace (for some reason that really, really unsettled me). Also the emotions of feeling adults don’t understand you, hating your siblings, feeling a disappointment to your parents was all fully evoked. There is also a certain horror to the book that the ‘younger you’ inside you will be really hit hard by. Interestingly these both involve the dad, one also involving the bath and the other involving Ursula and a wall and things that shouldn’t be seen. Both had a real impact with me and left me feeling quite uncomfortable and also incredibly moved and almost bruised, it is hard to explain.

Then there is also the element of the book that I loved the most; the fact it took me back to my childhood, and I thought that this was what Gaiman was setting out to do, give us as readers a serious case of nostalgia and the memory at the route as to why we love books. All the things that appealed to me most as Simon aged 31 were the things that would have appealed to me as Simon aged 11. I loved the Hempstock’s and could think of one of my Gran’s friends who I thought (and sometimes still do) was a real life good witch, and all those old ladies who had that wry smile and spoilt you who were probably only 50/60 but seemed about 110 years old. I also thought that Ursula Monkton, or anti-Poppins, was a fantastic character I would have loved to have had in many a books when I was a kid. That of course brings up the question is this book a book for adults, for children, both? Should it even matter?

Whilst I don’t think (and here I type almost wincing with fear) it is one of the very best books I have read all year, it was a true delight as it is one of those books that will remind you of your own imagination (which sounds silly but true) and how we must stretch it unquestioningly sometimes as we would when we were younger. This seemed the biggest message I got from the book, to look back at myself and how I felt at a time when anything and everything was possible and hold that memory now all these years later. It is a book that in looking at the narrators nostalgic memories makes you look at yours and I really, really liked it for that.

In ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ our narrator states ‘I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.’ I have found myself thinking about this a lot since I read the book as I wish that the older me could occasionally find the younger me and give myself over to the fantasy side a little more as maybe if I had, with the brilliance of Gaiman’s family drama in this novel and getting lost in the ‘beyond magical’ elements of the book, this would have been the perfect book for me. Which is of course the point of the book I think. One thing I do know for sure is that I must read more Gaiman. Should I head to ‘American Gods’ or ‘Neverwhere’ next? Or another of his titles entirely?


Filed under Headline Review, Neil Gaiman, Not The Booker Prize, Review

29 responses to “The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

  1. NG really doesn’t interest me. It seems I’ve heard just as many good things as mediocre ones. I don’t think it’s really my cup of tea, however some of the things you said in this post I’ve also heard in other critiques. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jessica

    Hi Simon.
    I like how honest your review is. A lot of Gaiman fans seem to dote on all of his writing, treating everything he writes is gold because he wrote it. So it’s nice that people who haven’t read a lot of his work feel they can be more open about what they think.
    I have been wondering about this book, and I still think I might give it a go. You seem to have covered it well. I feel that the narrative voice will still be the same as all his other works (not that I’ve read much either) and the more you read, the more you’ll see what I mean.
    Also, I would say you should read American Gods next. It seems to be the epitome of his work, and a really interesting and complicated read, even if there are a handful of sequences that don’t gel as much as you’d like.

    • I think if you are a big fan of an author you are going to, overall, dote or fawn on the work that they produce – though hopefully objectively if something really isn’t great, like Du Maurier’s debut for example, shock horror.

      I liked this, I don’t want people to think I didn’t. I just liked the nostalgic side and the real with a hint of magic rather than the fantastical elements.

  3. Simon, I agree with Jessica. Read American Gods next. As to the significance of the ocean in the title, think about things being not as they first appear, and also the unknown that lies so close to our familiar world.

  4. gaskella

    I’ve only read The Graveyard Book and Coraline, both of which I very much liked – so like you I’m not yet sure what I think of NG. I have this book on my shelf, so have only skimmed your review so as not to influence my reading too much!

    • Hahaha do report back when you have read it. I think I need to read one of his more adult-adult (but not that adult) books to work him out. For me this was a crossover book and I want to try something a bit harder.

  5. I have to be honest and say I LOVE Neil Gaiman, but what’s interesting is that he’s written different sorts of stuff so people who love Stardust might not like American Gods so much. I would definitely recommend American Gods, I think that’s been my favourite so far, although his short story collections are very good too.

    • Nothing wrong with loving an author, especially one who is as diverse and with such out put as Gaiman. I think an author writing eclectically is what will bring them the most audience, look at Susan Hill and how her work differs.

  6. Don’t be afraid–even some long-time Gaiman fans weren’t as impressed with this one as with some of his others.

    American Gods and Neverwhere are both good, but as a whole I liked American Gods more. Neverwhere had some really cool elements that I loved, but other parts irritated me or fell flat.

    • Were they not? I don’t think I have seen a Gaiman fan who didn’t love this actually. I love the fact that it started as a love story to his wife. I will have to give both American Gods and Neverwhere a whirl.

  7. Matt Cresswell

    I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan, although not quite a rabid follower, and I read this novel in a park in London after I’d travelled down to see him do a talk–so the whole experience of reading had a kind of fleeting magical transportation, lost in an unknown place, sort of feel. I can see your reticence about the supernatural elements. For me, their not-quite-full-sketch made them feel a little bit more primal, same way as you might not grasp all the full story of something when you were young.

    As for something else of his to read next, the problem/virtue of Gaiman novels is they are all quite different. Neverwhere is straightforward adventure (though by far my favourite) and American Gods is a much twister, darker, urban fantasy. Whichever appeals to you… But Ocean at the End of the Lane has most of its roots in Coraline and some of the more oblique episodes of the Sandman series.

    • Rabid follower, that sounds like you aren’t well ha! I do think how you read something and where you read it is all part and parcel of this and I did read this in a binge of reading for an award o I was also comparing it to other books. Though I do that all the time mentally, not with a prize in mind obviously, so maybe I am making excuses and I just liked it a lot, nothing wrong with liking a book though.

      I am moving away from this comment I am rambling my way into a big hole!

  8. He is one of the more popular writers these days, isn’t he? There’s so much hype. I’ve read two of his books, and enjoyed them a lot too…they just don’t seem as memorable as I would expect them to be.

    • There was definitely a lot of buzz around this book wasn’t there? I think also certain authors come with such high praise over time that you expect a lot from them and that is hard to live up to – not the authors fault though.

      • @savidgereads: Yes, definitely not the author’s fault. If I read his books randomly picking them up in the library with no knowledge of the hype, I’d be gushing all about them.

  9. I always enjoy Neil Gaiman’s books, but I never enjoy them quite as much as I expect to.

  10. Louise Trolle

    American Gods is one of my favourite all time reads – so while Neverwhere is great, I recommend American Gods as your next Gaiman read 🙂

  11. Good review. I love Gaiman but not without the occasional reservation. I would always recommend American Gods most highly and I get the feeling it would resonate best with you.

  12. sarah

    I am also a huge Neil Gaiman fan. When he came to New Hampshire to talk, the people hosting the venue said he was really nice and laid back. I think you might find his short stories enjoyable. His versatility really comes through in those and since they’re shorter, they tend to be “tighter” in plot (He does love a long, descriptive passage – and that can be a blessing and a curse in anybody’s writing).

    • I would like to try his short stories, I actually need to read more short stories in general. I know about the love of Gaiman as Gav has been to see him a few times and told me all about the madness and also how lovely he is too.

  13. Reblogged this on Freshly Pressed Words and commented:
    A good review of The Ocean at the end of the Lane.

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