“Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?”
A man returns to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the reception he finds himself exploring the scenes of his childhood. He is drawn down the old flint lane to the Hempstock farm, a property and a family so old they are listed in the Domesday Book. Sitting by the duck pond, he remembers his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock, who called the pond her ocean. But he also suddenly remembers other darker, more impossible things, things that cannot possibly be true. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence.
When I first heard the story behind the writing of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I expected it to be a long novel; I set aside an entire day to read it. After all, it began as a short story, and then grew into a novelette, then a novella, and then a full blown novel. However, at 178 pages, it is considerably shorter than Gaiman’s other adult novels, or even his children’s novel, The Graveyard Book. I was prepared to be disappointed, but instead of falling short, The Ocean at the End of the Lane simply distills everything that is wonderful about Gaiman’s work into a smaller, more concentrated story. I was pulled under immediately, and misty-eyed by page eleven for a delicate, bookish little boy I related to whole-heartedly.
Despite being billed as an adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane hovers on the cusp—about children, yet not quite for children, and yet more like being a child again than reading about one. Gaiman’s unnamed protagonist “liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that, they just were.” In much the same way, The Ocean at the End of the Lane just is, a touch too dark and heavy to be for children, but requiring more willing suspension of disbelief than many adults are capable of. Magic is rife in the novel, but explanations are sparse and, for me at least, would only spoil the sense that children know but adults have forgotten. This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.” If you were ever a bookish child, and if you’re an adult who still loves tales of unbelievable magic, you don’t want to hear any more about this book. You want to go read it.
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