Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This is not a studied review so much as a “first impressions” sort of post, because this is a book that I think I am going to have to reread at least once.

I love Neil Gaiman and all his work, and I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time, ever since he posted on his Tumblr about the short story called “Lettie Hempstock’s Ocean” that had transformed into a novel. I’ve been working my way through most of his other work and I was so excited to have something new. I preordered the signed first edition and everything.

I think it’s inevitable that with such high expectations things would not turn out quite as I imagined. I was not disappointed–the book was as brilliant as everyone said it would be. But I was surprised.

I don’t know why I was surprised. I had read from several people, including Neil himself, that this book was unlike anything else he’s ever written. It’s not that it didn’t feel Gaiman-y–it had a lot of the things Neil includes in a lot of his work, like magic and mystery, darkness and scary things. If anything, this book maybe felt more Gaiman-y than a lot of his other work, in that it felt a lot more like Neil telling a story in his own voice. The voice, for whatever reason, sounded to me much more like Neil in his blog or on Tumblr and much less like Neil Gaiman, capitalized.

The story of the book is not overly complicated, but is also very difficult to describe without giving everything away. In short: after his father’s funeral the narrator returns to the lane where he grew up and goes to the house at the end of the lane where his friend Lettie used to live. He sits by the pond–which Lettie always insisted was an ocean–and as he sits he remembers the impossible, scary, fantastic things that happened to him when he was seven years old, when he first met Lettie and was pulled into a world of magic and danger that he did not understand.

The book actually had a bit of a slow start for me, maybe because it wasn’t quite what I expected, or maybe because I had such high expectations to start with. But it’s the kind of book that creeps up on you until you suddenly realize you’re in the middle of a really fascinating story. Neil has such a brilliant way of weaving together the ordinary and the extraordinary, making the magical happenings feel, in their own strange way, perfectly normal. It’s my favorite sort of magic in stories–the kind that’s not made with magic wands and lots of flash, but the sort that simply happens. The Hempstock women–Lettie, her mother, and grandmother–kind of embody this: they are wonderfully no-nonsense and capable, and are also much more than they initially appear.

That’s kind of a thing that runs through the whole book–everything you think is simple turns out to be more than it appears. Even the framing device of the older narrator remembering the events of his childhood turns into something much more than your basic “I remember when” storytelling tool. The ending, when you go back to the narrator sitting on the bench as an adult, actually turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the book, when everything came together and I just had this moment of “Oh! THAT’S IT!” And of course, there’s the mythical undertones I love so much in his work and some pretty incisive observations on what the world of grown-ups looks like to a child, all rolled up with a healthy dose of scary/creepy/jesuschristneilhowdoesyourbraincomeupwiththatandstillsleep incidents.

I can’t wait to read it again and see what I find the second time through.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

    • It’s definitely one that takes some thinking over. The whole thing with the bathtub almost lost me, but I think it was the ending that really made it for me. The idea that the three Hempstocks were all somehow the same being (Maiden, Mother, Crone sort of thing) kind of blew my mind.

      • Yeah, maybe I felt that way about the Hempstock women because it was so obvious once I realized it (I also felt a little slow…:P). I dunno. I think the idea of him having this whole important episode that shaped him but that he can’t remember (presumably because it wouldn’t do any good to remember until he needs to) is really interesting.
        I don’t think there’s any right or wrong impressions, though. Just different ones.

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