The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first adult novel Neil Gaiman has written since 2005, and it’s very different from his previous works for adults. I was expecting more American Gods and Good Omens but I got a grown-up Coraline. I really liked Coraline, and this is better, but it was definitely different than I expected. I think the difference is that this is such a quiet, intimate story, more so than what I’m used to from the creator of The Sandman.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is narrated by a man who returned to his childhood home for a funeral. For reasons he can’t explain, he goes on a drive through the country and is drawn to the farm at the end of the lane where odd Lettie Hempstock used to live.
He knew Lettie, didn’t he? There was a pond at the back of their farmhouse that she called an ocean, right? As he stares at Lettie’s ocean, memories from forty years earlier wash over him and he remembers: the opal miner who committed suicide in the Hempstock’s driveway; Ursula Monkton, the spirit who followed him from the Hempstock farm and tore apart his world; and the three Hempstock women – Lettie, her mother, and Old Mrs. Hempstock – and how they tried to help protect him.
If you’ve read or seen the movie Coraline, the story the man recalls from when he was seven is quite similar. A child discovers a scary world and a terrifying spirit, and his parents don’t believe him, leaving him to fight the evil spirit on his own. This base tale is the same as Coraline, but Coraline was written for children and is treated as such, while here the dangers are more pronounced and an older man’s recollection of how he views it now and how it changed him is what’s key.
I went back and forth with my feelings on this. While reading it, I kept wondering why this was on the shelf next to American Gods and not Coraline. We hear mostly from the 7-year-old, so why is this billed as an adult novel?
But then I realized that many soft spoken, quiet observations may not be understood by young children. Sure, young kids can read this book and find a lot of enjoyment in it, I know I would’ve loved it as a kid, but would I have understood it all? Probably not. It would be like how I watched “Dirty Dancing” as a kid and I just thought she had a really bad stomach ache.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is more than a kid fighting a spirit. What we get here is a man reflecting on his life, piecing together how he is where he is, trying to understand why, and contemplating his worth. We get the impression that this is also how he felt when he was a child, how we all feel, and that these feelings are always prevalent in our lives, though may manifest in different ways. This is much more subtle, peaceful, and quiet than I’m used to with Gaiman, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s different, but good different. I loved it.