There are things you forget about as an adult reader with just the most basic knowledge of, for instance, Harry Potter trivia. That is, namely, that there exists a world of ominous tent-shaped figures, evil adults, and the containment of an entire ocean within a single bucket. A place where stories are stories and not just pieces of reality slightly hip-checked to the right. And you can go there, if you can set aside the books with familiar worlds that are maybe just in a different zip code.
Enter, Neil Gaiman. When he tells the world that he has written his first adult novel in almost a decade, he is not about to hand over a story set in a burough in which the protagonists learn a thing or two about life. He’s going to write the kind of story that would be deliciously spooky to the pre-Goth pre-teen and deliciously clever to the cool adult who has the common sense to hand it over to a totally different audience.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane has an adult framework: An unnamed protagonist has returned to his small hometown for the funeral of an unnamed relative. The former finds himself meandering after the ceremony and his car ends up at the old farmhouse where his mysterious friend Lettie Hempstock once lived with two other generations of Mrs. Hempstocks. Much of his memory is a bit foggy, but when he sits near a pond in the back yard some of it clears. He remembers that Lettie used to call it an ocean, rather than a pond, then he remembers the weird and supernaturally frightening period of their friendship when he was 7-years-old.
A boarder had rented the boy’s bedroom, but not for long. He quickly stole the family car, drove it to a spot near the Hempstock home, and asphyxiated himself on fumes. This death unleashes a beast whose evil lies in giving people what they think they want. Lettie and the boy clasp hands and wander into secret woods to warn it away. When they become disconnected, the no good thing uses the boy as a host body into the physical world where it manifests as a sweet seeming nanny who will hoodwink the boy’s mother and sister and partake in the special hug with the boy’s father. Just the boy retains suspicion about this character and when they are alone she torments and threatens him. She remains two steps ahead of him in their private chess match and she influences his father to consider death-by-drowning as a viable punishment for the kid.
The boy, Lettie and the Ladies Hempstock join up to combat this evil force, a process that involves all sorts of little tricks.
It feels condescending to call this a nice little book, because it’s really not nice per se but it is a quick-hit and entertaining read. It’s colorful, as vivid as a movie and it tugs at the imagination the way a lot of books don’t exactly need you to do. It asks you to remember that at age 7 it would be terrifying to challenge a monster and have no one in your family believe the monster exists. And, just so there is a grown up element, it’s about memory and the way it morphs and blurs.
Plus, there is the charming backstory, which always gets me good: Gaiman read the book aloud in bed to his wife Amanda Palmer as he was writing. He went on to dedicate it to her. That’s exactly the kind of celebrity gossip I love to hear.