Neil Gaiman is a master craftsman. Somehow he has an ability to take words and shape them into strings of ideas that make you feel whole and empty all in the same breath. And he has the bloody nerve to make it feel effortless and easy. I sometimes hate him when I read his work, but love the work itself. Then I get over it and read the next one. Which led me to The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
It’s a shorter work, less than 200 pages all told. According to an afterword it started as a short story but mutated into a novella as he wrote it (Do you see why I occasionally hate this guy?). The brevity gives this novel an intensity that was not present in his more renowned work. Sandman and American Gods are fairly long works with very determinate paces, but with Ocean he manages the time well, and focuses on the emotions tied into the prose rather than mythological references or backstory.
The tight, focused narrative keeps a reader on the edge of their seat, and since its Gaiman the mythological and fantastic play a role, but a small one, definitively ancillary to the experience of the protagonist. Terrifying in parts, heartwarming in others, the pay-off at the end of the book seemed a little anti-climactic, but even that may have been intentional. The joy of Ocean at the End of the Lane is decidedly in the journey, and experiencing a small, fantastic glimpse into the life of a little boy.
I won’t bore you with plot summary, but there is an element of Science Fiction and Fantasy that Neil Gaiman handles in typically (and infuriatingly) precise fashion. Some of the more magical characters in Ocean can essentially “cut” pieces of time out of reality and sew them back together, essentially eliminating events from universal consciousness. Most other writers would see this as a cheap, Deus ex-level of cheat, especially when the climax includes an “It was all a dream” element. Gaiman takes you through every painstaking part of the memory, and then cuts it out. I wanted to feel cheated and cheapened, but the way he handles it wouldn’t allow me to. Remember how I said empty and whole in the opening paragraph? That’s exactly how you feel when you’ve read this book.
Fucking Neil Gaiman. If you’re a bibliophile, you’ll really appreciate this book, and find it immensely quotable. Even if you hate books (in which case why the hell are you reading this?) he has some great prose moments in this story:
“I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.”
“I lay on the bed and lost myself in stories. I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyway.”
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children stories. They were better than than that. They just were.”
“You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.”
I particularly like that last one. I could list more but…you’ll have to read the book. Ha.
Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quiet yet moving short fiction piece that everyone, not just Gaiman fans, will enjoy. If you were ever a little kid (and I hope you were, at some point) , you’ll be able to relate to the emotional turmoil and desire for escape present on every single page.
I give this book 2-out-of-2 middle fingers straight up in the air. Because seriously Neil, fuck you. Stop making it look so easy. The rest of us are developing a complex.