Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013)
by Alan F. Zundel
The subtitle of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is “A Novel,” but it is better described as a fairy tale. It does not have the depth of character insight that a good novel will have, but it does have the fantasy elements of a fairy tale, the classic kind in which horrible adult actions are viewed from the perspective of an innocent and imaginative child.
Be warned, though: it is not a fairy tale for young children, despite author Neil Gaiman’s several other children’s books (including “Coraline,” a 2002 book adapted into a 2009 stop-motion animated movie).
I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up the book, having never read any of Gaiman’s other books. It was the dust-jacket that attracted me, the cover art suggesting a tragedy and the blurbs promising a memorable, myth-like story of something terrible happening involved children. I don’t mind dark themes if they move me.
Early on, when the story veered into full-blown fantasy elements, I was surprised. The unnamed narrator is an unhappy middle-aged man who returns to his home town for a funeral and finds himself driving out to the farm at the end of a lane where he was childhood friends with a girl named Lettie Hempstock. He sits down at a pond (the titular “ocean”) and begins to remember things that happened when he was seven years old.
Bad things happened. The story jumps back to that time, in which his kitten is run over, a boarder with his family commits suicide, and one morning the boy wakes up choking on a coin. Lettie connects the latter two events and takes the boy into a forest where they encounter a monster. From there on the story becomes increasingly filled with elements of fantasy and horror.
And I do mean filled. For my taste, over-filled. The author begins to pile on one fantastic event or detail after another, until any sense of real life is lost. Taken as a fairy tale, this is would be fine, except that fairy tales are much shorter. The novel is brief (I read it in a few sittings), yet much too long for its paucity of realistic characters to empathize with.
The narrator does draw you into the boy’s world, his ways of viewing things (more confused by the actions of real adults than by those of supernatural creatures), his emotions, his sense of isolation in living out in farmland and escaping into books. I was not sure he was always acting as a seven-year old actually would, but that may be because he was confronted with situations that no seven-year old actually has been confronted with. Or maybe because his older self, narrating the story, is unconsciously interjecting his own reactions into his younger self.
Other than the boy, none of the characters were fleshed out as multi-dimensional human beings. (Perhaps multi-dimensional is the wrong word, as some of the characters clearly inhabit more than one dimension.) The other principal characters are more archetypes or fantastic creatures than humans, but they didn’t have enough of the qualities associated with humans to interest me.
The boy’s father plays a small but pivotal role in the story, but I never had a sense of who he was nor felt a sense of connection with him. Giving a fuller picture of the boy’s real life and relationships would have provided a counter-point to the fantasy elements and added a sense of suspense, because the supernatural creatures were impinging on the boy’s real life. (Yes, even the boy’s “real life” was fiction, but it was clearly presented as real in contrast to the other things going on.)
One scene, with the boy threatened by figures stolen from his own mind, was curiously reminiscent of a similar scene in some Carlos Castaneda book I read long ago. Gaiman, much like Castaneda, also seems enamored of mystical metaphysics. Maybe I am just older and have been exposed to more of that, but Gaiman’s excursion into this territory did not evoke the same sense of thrill and wonder that Castaneda’s books once did for me.
Gaiman’s writing style is fluid and clean, which made the book a pleasurable read, aside from the fact that the story started losing my interest well before it ended. Since it was short, I pushed through to the end, but I was not rewarded with any emotional payoff. The story did have a climax, but it was more a case of the author trying to out-do himself on the fantastic elements.
If you are a fan of fantasy-horror, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is imaginative and nicely written. You would likely enjoy this more than I did. For others, I would not recommend it. It was not a bad read, but there are other good books out there and only so much time for reading.