With The Ocean at the End of the Lane, best-selling fantasy author Neil Gaiman has written his first adult novel in almost a decade. It's a deceptively simple tale that feels like escapism — until you realize that it isn't.
Ocean is told from the point of view of a melancholy but successful artist returning to his childhood home in Sussex, England. On a lark, he visits an old farm where he played as a boy, and is suddenly overwhelmed by memories of being entangled in a magical conflict with roots stretching back before the Big Bang.
When he was 7, our unnamed protagonist spent all his time memorizing Gilbert and Sullivan songs, reading countless books and playing with his new kitten. Though fantasy worlds help him escape from the indifference of his family and classmates, he can't help but notice that things are rough in the adult world. Like many other people in the neighborhood, his parents are strapped for money. To make ends meet, they have to take in boarders.
One of those borders is a down-on-his luck gambler who kills the boy's kitten in an accident, and shortly thereafter kills himself in the family car. These tragedies unleash an ancient malevolence that seems to feed on the town's collective, gnawing desire for money — with disastrous results, especially for our protagonist. But they also bring him into contact with an 11-year-old (or maybe billion-year-old) girl named Lettie Hempstock, who lives with her mother and grandmother on an old farm at the end of the eponymous lane.
Gaiman evokes feelings of warmth and safety as ably as he does anxious terror, and the Hempstock farm is ground zero for everything comforting in the boy's life. Gaiman hints that it might even be the safest spot in the whole universe. Lettie and her family are kindly creatures who exist outside of time, partly in order to prevent destruction from malevolences like the one unleashed by the suicide.
The struggle between Lettie's family and this evil force takes on darkly beautiful, dreamlike proportions. But every fantasy scenario is shot through with the tragedies of human reality, and even as the magic builds, so too does our knowledge that this boy and his family are deeply broken in ways that are all too mundane.
This is a fairly short novel in a genre known for its doorstoppers (including Gaiman's own American Gods), and that's to its benefit: The story is tightly plotted and exciting. Reading it feels a lot like diving into an extremely smart, morally ambiguous fairy tale. And indeed, Gaiman's adult protagonist observes at one point that fairy tales aren't for kids or grownups — they're just stories. In Gaiman's version of the fairy tale, his protagonist's adult and child perspectives are interwoven seamlessly, giving us a sense of how he experienced his past at that time, as well as how it affected him for the rest of his life.
Perhaps the one problem in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is that we never quite understand why Lettie decides to protect our protagonist. Does she feel sorry for him? Is he especially imaginative and brave? Or do the Hempstocks simply go through a phase where they bond with a random human? We never know — and the narrator never knows either.
But this mystery, though frustrating, is also the source of this book's bittersweet emotional power. Now in his middle age, the protagonist has to ask himself whether his simple, mortal life justified a magical showdown. Like all the fantastical ideas in Ocean, this one has a real-world analogue. None of us ever really knows whether the people we become as adults are worth the love and protection given to us when we were too young to repay it in kind. And we have to grow old and die without ever knowing the answer. This is a novel that manages to balance frenetic action with wistful self-knowledge — never missing a beat.