Neil Gaiman is one of the world’s best known fantasy writers. His work can be found in comics/graphic novels (Sandman, Batman and Swamp Thing), television (Neverwhere, Babylon 5), motion pictures (Coraline, Mirror Mask) and radio--and, of course, in his novels and short stories. Gaiman’s books range from picture books (Chu’s Day, The Dangerous Alphabet, The Wolves in the Walls) to large adult “doorstop” novels (American Gods) and almost any and everything in between. He won the Newbery and Carnegie Medals for The Graveyard Book, which, while ostensibly a children’s book, has thrilled readers of all ages. Gaiman’s latest work, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a slim volume, really more of a long novella than a short novel. But contained in these pages is a story that rivals any of the author’s more complex works.
While attending a funeral, an adult artist chooses to leave the funeral party, and drives out to the site of a house in which his family lived when he was very young. Long ago the house was torn down, but he is drawn further down the lane to a farm, and then further to a small body of water (some call it a pond, others an ocean). As he sits in quiet contemplation of what drew him to this place, his past comes flooding back to him. Memories, mostly forgotten--from when he was seven years old and faced evils that would terrify an adult--begin to overwhelm him. Could this have really happened? And where is Lettie Hempstock, the friend who faced these terrors with him--a girl only a few years older than he when these events transpired.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman recounts the events that will shape a life from the perspective of a very specific seven-year-old boy. This child will be a revelation for some, while for others he will be a familiar reminder of an earlier time in the reader’s life. The circumstances described in the book are perfectly matched with this protagonist. The sense of wonder, excitement, terror and morality held by a small child are the perfect window through which to experience this story.
The magic in this book is both wondrous and pragmatic. Gaiman goes to great lengths to ground these more mystical elements in the familiar. This doesn’t lessen their impact, but rather gives them a greater sense of possibility. By talking about magic in terms of dark matter and the Big Bang (both the old one and the coming one), Gaiman makes the magic seem real in a way few other writers are able to accomplish. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke claimed, what is magic other than a technology with which we aren’t yet familiar?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a gem of a novel--compact, diamond sharp, multifaceted, and gleaming with both the clarity of its own vision and the possibilities of the perspectives and interpretations each reader will bring when he or she reads it.