Darkness and Saltwater: A Review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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I really, really like Neil Gaiman. He’s smart. He’s funny. And he writes things like this.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is more of a novella than a novel. At 181 pages, it’s a quick read. But that’s good, because that way you can read it over and over again. As for me, I read it in a few hours. I could not put it down.

This book makes me feel like I’m a child again, like I’ve discovered a weird, mysterious story that will be my favorite for years to come because it’s simply dripping with folklore and mysticism and magic. It’s like a musty book you pull out of the attic and devour by candlelight.

The book tells the story of an unnamed seven-year-old boy. A suicide occurs on his street, putting dark forces into motion. The boy soon meets a girl named Lettie Hempstock, her mother and her grandmother, who are much older than they look. They know what magic is like and what world it reveals. They live in the farm at the end of the lane.  

I would tell you more, but I firmly believe that this is one of those books where you don’t need to read the summary. In fact, I suggest you don’t read a summary. There probably won’t be spoilers, but this is a book to discover as it is told. Hey, it’s a short book, anyway. Short books shouldn’t need summaries, they should just be read.

Despite being a fantasy novel, Ocean speaks emotional truths. Neil Gaiman’s wife, Amanda Palmer, puts it best in her blog post about emotions in the novel.  

Beyond the magic, Ocean speaks to childhood memories and complicated human feelings. The boy in the story is lonely and without friends until he meets Lettie. In his loneliness he takes solace in his imagination, so it’s only natural that he accepts the magic he encounters along his journey without a bat of his eyelash. In fact, even with all the terror that comes along with the magic, our protagonist is simply happy to have Lettie by his side.

The boy experiences guilt at many points, a child’s obsessive guilt that blames all proceeding occurrences on his own mistakes. He also observes the adult world around him as a dark, confusing place. When we first meet our protagonist before hearing his story from childhood, he’s an adult with a family, and he is far gone into the confusion and frustrating normality of the adult world. A quote from the end of the book best puts this into perspective, when the protagonist as a child has a frighteningly clear epiphany: “I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”

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I’ve read a number of novels by Neil Gaiman, and I’ve enjoyed all of them. He has written many books for children, including Coraline and The Graveyard Book, both very creepy and very good. Funny how themes seem to overlap in many of his stories: childhood and darkness, though not necessarily as results of one another. Just results of the way the world is. That’s what I like about his stuff: he does not deny any darkness. He accepts it and molds it into an intriguing kind of darkness.

If you’re not into that kind of thing, my favorite book by Neil Gaiman, co-written with Terry Pratchett (one of the most hilarious writers out there), is Good Omens. Funniest book I ever read, scout’s honor. I laughed out loud every minute. Who knew angels, demons and the end of the world could be so funny?

Other recommendations for books by Neil Gaiman:

Coraline

The Graveyard Book

Stardust

Neverwhere

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