A fabulous atmospheric fantasy novel by one of the recognised modern masters of the genre. 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' is a brilliantly written story - gripping from the first pages, with interesting characters and a narrator you can root for, and a gloriously dark edge underlying it. The narrator is a middle aged man who revisits his childhood home and remembers an extraordinary series of events that happened when he was aged seven. The book evokes the feelings of childhood perfectly, particularly the fear and helplessness, but without running into problems with the narrative voice by having the narrator an adult looking back.
It is a 'plot driven' novel where plenty happens and it is often exciting and hard to put down. But there is a strong emotional undercurrent, and many genuinely poignant moments. It's very well balanced and manages to tug at your heart strings without actually appearing to do so, as you're so caught up in the drama.
Even readers who don't usually go for 'fantasy' books would likely enjoy this - it's accessibly written, and its themes of loss of innocence and taking on responsibility are universal. It's also a thumping good yarn that is hard to put down. The length is short - under 150 pages, and the pacing perfect. Gaiman is good at building up suspense and the middle section in particular had me jumping at shadows. There's a creepy, unsettling feeling that is created, and the ending is moving.
Although it's a book about a child and childhood, it wouldn't be suitable for young children. However I think teenagers from around 12 upwards would appreciate it and enjoy it. There are some mild sexual references and it's a bit scary, but no more so than many other books for this age group. Fans of Terry Practchett's novels for younger readers would almost certainly like this, and readers who enjoyed this but haven't tried Pratchett should add 'The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents' and 'The Wee Free Men' to their reading lists.
on 17 October 2014
Neil Gaiman is such a remarkable author. One of my all time favorites. I have always marvelled at how well he can interweave fantasy and reality. You don’t seem to lose that familiar grounding of the world we know, even as you are delving into the mysteries of otherwordliness that creep up on you from the pages of his award winning novels.
Although this theme of reality spilling into the unknown (or vice versa) is one of Gaiman’s familiar formulas, there is something so very different and unexpected about this latest tale. We enter into the reveries of a middle-aged man who has returned to his hometown for a funeral. The childhood recollections, told in a very believeable first-person narrative, seem wholly commonplace and plausible. The exact sort of memories that Gaiman himself might have; and indeed he has revealed that he drew heavily upon personal experiences when writing this book. Somewhere along the way, however, the reader is almost imperceptibly drawn into a world of supernatural wonderment. There are dangers so completely evil that the seven year old protagonist should be hiding away beneath the blankets; yet children are always more accepting of the unexplainable, and so he finds himself caught in a thick web of mystical wickedness. By his side, however, is a girl as wholesome as the fresh milk she serves him from her farm; but also as brave as any mythic hero and as sagely as the dawn of time.
It is a journey that you will not forget easily. It is childhood lost and fairytales rekindled. It is one of a kind, and only Gaiman could have crafted such a complexly enchanting tale.
Here's the confession. I fell out of love with Fantasy when I grew up. I read plenty when I was a child and in my teens. I was hooked by The Magus (is that Fantasy?) and I fell under the spell of Lord of the Rings. And then...I don't know...after then I found all fantasy a total nonsense. Too many elves and characters with unpronounceable names with the power of Magick. (It has to have that 'k' apparently to make it sound ancient and wise.
That's not to say I haven't touched any Fantasy since then. I have enjoyed novels with an element of the strange and disturbing from time to time but not the fairies and elves sort.Having said that, I have recently found Alan Garner and was blown away by The Stone Book Quartet.
Another confession. I have never read any Neil Gaiman. In fact, I only got to hear about him when he wrote one or two episodes of Doctor Who, which I felt were more thought-provoking than most. So when I began reading the advance-publicity for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I was intrigued.
What I love about it is that as I began to read it it didn't seem as if I was reading fantasy. It felt more of a coming-of-age novel that drew me in and held my interest as, little-by-little, the story developed into full-blown fantasy. By then, any prejudice I had against the genre had gone. I also like the way it can be read as the story of a bookish child with conventional parents and no friends who finds empathy with Lettie Hemstock strange girl four years his senior. But she is no ordinary eleven-year-old girl and her mother and grandmother no ordinary women. There might not even be three of them.
To me, good fantasy expands the mind so that you find elements of philosophy, psychology and the way the human mind works. I note that one reviewer here says that the imagery is not religious. I agree, it is not overtly Christian or preachy like C S Lewis and relies on a more universal myth as expressed by Robert Graves. The human mind latches onto the number three, whether it be the way a story is composed (Beginning, middle and end) or even in the Christian Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). It's deep in our psyche. Any writer who can use this configuration will engage readers and Neil Gaiman understands this perfectly. His prose style is clear and un-sensational, alternately horrifying and re-assuring. It's the battle of Good v Evil and we can all relate to that whether we see that as forces beyond ourselves or the basic instincts within us.
Mr Gaiman - I am converted. I will read more of you. I may even follow you on Twitter!
on 28 December 2014
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short, sweet fable of lost innocence, told with Neil Gaiman's characteristic flair for weaving the wondrous into the mundane. Our unnamed protagonist revisits his childhood home in what amounts to a prologue; before relating the tale of his seven year-old self's brush with otherworldly evil.
In its content, Ocean is a fairy tale; a simple narrative about monsters and fairy godmothers, the Brothers Grimm abroad in 1970's England. In its form, however, Ocean is delightfully complex.This is a richly-textured exploration of the wonder and fear which suffuses our childhood experiences, and the painful realisation that our parents are but frail humans. As in Gaiman's previous works, his broad-brush fantasies prove, on closer inspection, to be complex and nuanced. His is a world where, yes, good must fight evil, and ultimately triumph; but the monsters are alien rather than malign; his characters conflicted, and for every triumph a price must be paid. Indeed, in Ocean's stunning epilogue, the true cost of the protagonist's brush with the Hempstocks and the hunger birds is laid painfully bare; a poignant twist to cap a satisfying tale.
At just over 140 pages, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is perhaps a little too short and narrow in its scope to be a low fantasy classic. It punches above its weight, however, and will resonate with young adult and adult readers alike. It is perhaps too dark, with some grotesque as well as sexual imagery, to be suitable for children. For readers new to Gaiman's works, Ocean is a delightful aperitif; readers who enjoy it would do well to tackle Stardust and American Gods thereafter. Established fans may find it familiar, but enchanting nevertheless. And when a writer's canon is of as high as caliber as Gaiman's, who could complain about more of the same?
on 24 October 2015
The Ocean at the end of the Lane, is a straightforward book, that is easy to read but touches on deeper themes in a manner that an author like Neil Gaiman would attempt.
It captures the feel of growing up in the country really well, with common places made special and otherworldly simply by their location and a young imagination.
In some ways the story feels really rather sad, a melancholic vein running through, perhaps made more ‘real’ by the fact that the story is told retrospectively by the main protagonist.
A character that would appeal to many who grew up reading books, lost in adventures in their heads, he tells us that he found it hard to make friends as when younger. He seemed happy enough living with his mother, father and sister until a sequence of events brings him into contact with the Hempstock family, the youngest of them, a daughter Hettie, a few years older than himself.
They live in a farm at ‘the end of the lane’ with a pond in the middle of the yard, although Hettie calls it an ocean, a fanciful bit of imagination.
But as with stories of this type there is a lot more going on than initially meets the eye, and the new friends embark on an adventure to stop something dark seeping into the world. It is a threat that gradually escalates until only a sacrifice will appease.
The book draws on archetypes, most importantly in the form of the Hempstock family. There is a power in the form of three women, often shown as three witches although Gaiman makes them so much more in this instance. It is something that the late Terry Pratchett used and can be traced back through literature over the ages, indeed Gaiman himself made use of the trope in has Sandman series.
The Crone (rather unkind), the Mother and the Maiden – a role fulfilled by the Hempstock family. They seem somewhat archaic, but also seem to know a lot more about the world than anyone else. They are also filled with mystery and a gentle cunning. Hettie gives her age as eleven, but it is then established that the important question is how long has she been eleven?
For what is really quite a small book it is hidden with depth, from the characters themselves (especially the Hempstocks), touching on themes of loss, of greed, of suicide, of the feeling that there is more to the world than we could possibly believe, of courage and the willingness to sacrifice the most potent of things for friendship and more. Of horror that can lurk in the most innocuous of places and of the bravery it takes to find it.
It is also very unsettling, having one of the most disturbing scenes I have read in a long time as a father tries to drown his son.
Perhaps it is the mark of desperation falling upon a man finding his world being diminished by financial difficulties, but there is nothing more disturbing or terrifying than finding that one of the two people in the world that should be there for a child no matter what, is a bigger threat than anything else in the world.
It is a book that is both terrifying and wonderful, delivering a conclusion that is fitting and yet downbeat. A genuine telling and a charming read.
This book engages the reader from the opening pages. The narrator looks back, taking us from his childhood through a life that revolves around the Hempstock family. Lettie is something of an enigma. 'I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty spaces in my life'. From his lonely 7th birthday party, through 'living in books as a child - including comics', his early years involve a series of lodgers, including a tragic gambler. His placement with the threatening Ursula, who sounds scary in a fairy-tale style, leads to the narration 'for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie'. His destiny is in the power of others. Distraught and feeling helpless he has strength in his hope.
There are some magical moments. 11 year old Lettie is typically childish in describing the local duck pond as an ocean. A figment we may recollect as a reflection of what the future may hold in the imagination yet bound by reality.
This a read that is at times uncomfortable, yet it's delights throw up the predicament of an unhappy childhood, uncaring parents, thrown into a world of cruelty and weirdness made more believable by the made-up fantasies that are not the sole providence of innocence but may be relevant to adults. This excellent novel provides plenty of deep thoughts and after thoughts. The prose is magnificent throughout.
on 24 December 2013
I love Neil Gaimen. So I expected no less than to love this book but any long term fan knows an author can have a dud.
This is not that book.
This is where Gaimen thrives- lulls you into a feeling of an average story of adults reminiscing about childhoods and then, easy as you like, it becomes a fantastical tale of a boy and a girl (who's been 11 for a long time) and their attempts to save his family from a being that crossed over from the place with an orange sky to Our World, where it doesn't belong.
I won't say anymore for fear of ruining the suspense and skill of Gaimen pulling you into this brilliantly-crafted story.
Highly recommend (if you can't tell).
on 5 May 2014
This is Neil Gaiman we're talking about, so The Ocean at the End of the Lane is well-written, with his characteristic lyrical prose and very original imagery. He also weaves in folklore, as he often does, but this time he includes much less well-known characters such as the gaelic Scathach (and I see this was written on Skye - clearly his inspiration in this case!) as well as mother/maiden/crone stuff.
It is, however, a very simple, short tale, despite the weaving at the front and back ends of half-remembered memory. There are no side plots or secondary characters with interesting tales. It's a bit like a long short story; the novel itself is just 236pp long, with 18pp of commentary and acknowledgements, and 5pp of newspaper/magazine reviews of the novel.
In many ways, it seems like a children's book, but it is probably not suitable for younger children - certainly sensitive or more conservative types - because of one short graphic sexual reference, a suicide (albeit it's a fairly incidental character you have not bonded with), and one's views on what happens near the end (to spell out more would be a spoiler).
Unfortunately when you reach for a novel that has been so heavily reviewed in the media (and they're listed in the book and on this page, so the publisher intends us to take them into account), you have horribly high expectations and it's hard not to expect what the reviews have told you to expect - and if you buy from Amazon, those reviews are critical to making the purchase. In this case, the media reviews often say or imply that the novel has profound views on the nature of childhood and memory. Now, I'm not saying that the book doesn't touch on these issues, but it's no more profound than a number of books in the fantasy genre that don't benefit from such universal reviews.
So, all in all: it's a pretty decent, well-written, short read (I read it in a few hours) and probably great for, say, a train ride or plane trip. But it's not ground-breaking fantasy, and it's awfully short.
on 8 July 2013
As a big Neil Gaiman fan, it pains my to say this, but if I were to sum this book up in one word, it would be "underwhelming." Or possibly "underdeveloped."
Don't get me wrong, it's by no means awful, and there are a few very good things about it. It's just that it's not a patch on most of the rest of his work and if it was my first exposure to this usually brilliant author, I don't think I'd be in a particular rush to try another of his books. It's definitely more reminiscent of the fairly homely Coraline than the epic American Gods or Sandman series.
First, the good. The prose is inevitably lovely. Gaiman surely has one of the best styles of anyone writing in genre fiction. The sense of creepiness, even terror, is wonderfully created. Parts of the book I found as psychologically terrifying as the most full-blown horror novel. Without giving too much away, there's a section where the narrator is trying to leave his house to get help and is constantly foiled which is just a masterclass in ratcheting up the tension.
To some degree, he also creates a good sense of time and place (rural Britain in the seventies) but I thought this could have been developed further. I got the impression that the story could have taken place anywhere and would have enjoyed a bit more linking to local myths and landmarks, in the way you get with Alan Garner or Susan Cooper, or to seventies issues, like in The Rotters' Club or Black Swan Green.
The book apparently started life as a short story and it really shows. Partly, this is a simple length issue. It can't have been more than about 60 000 words and while sometimes short novels can work (the Great Gatsby is this sort of length and an undisputed classic) in this instance I felt it was over before I'd really had time to bond with the characters.
One of Gaiman's greatest strengths is his ability to weave myths and folklore into his stories, but here, the mythos felt oddly superficial. I didn't quite get what the Hempstocks were meant to be (other than yet another example of the Mother/Maiden/Crone concept) or why, if they were as powerful as they seemed, they were living quietly on a Sussex farm. I'd loved to have had more of their backstory and perhaps a bit of their point of view. Having come up with what appeared to be fascinating and original characters, they are horribly underused, and I felt the same to a lesser extent about the two supernatural enemies.
In conclusion, this is definitely worth a read, but if you're a Gaiman fan, maybe adjust your expectations downwards a little and if you've never read him before, start with another book or you might wonder what all the fuss is about. It's an entertaining, well-written and scary read but it's lacking the substance that would elevate it above that. If nothing else, I'd wait for the paperback to come out and the price to drop as it's far too short to justify the current price-tag.
on 28 December 2015
(Some minor spoilsies ahead.)
Our nameless narrator returns to his childhood home for his father’s funeral, triggering a book-length flashback to the time when he was seven years old and witnessed the age-old battle between good and evil – in magic form!
I’m approaching The Ocean at the End of the Lane having read several of Neil Gaiman’s books over the years – novels, short stories, children’s books, comics – so I’m very familiar with his style, themes, character types. That’s partly why I wasn’t terribly impressed with this book, because he’s basically on autopilot, though other things bothered me.
The “adult novel” label is laughable – this is a kid’s book. There’s a suicide and a sex scene but both are brief and written from the perspective of a child so they’re ambiguous enough for younger readers who wouldn’t necessarily understand what’s happening or find anything especially harrowing in the descriptions. Everything else in the story is pure kiddie fiction in the vein of Coraline and The Graveyard Book.
Annoyingly, one of the main characters, Lettie Hempstock, is a manic pixie dream girl – we’re still not past this irritating archetype!! Worse, she’s responsible for all the bad stuff that goes down in the story. For no reason, she brings along our nameless narrator to fight a monster in another realm where another monster embeds itself in the narrator’s foot, bringing evil into his world. It’s all her fault - what an idiot!
Peppered throughout are some of Gaiman’s usual tropes: magic in reality, kids seeing things adults don’t/kids are in tune with the magical stuff that adults forget about when they grow up, cats appear throughout and are magical beings, a young woman, older woman, and old woman appear (a la The Furies), magic is described obscurely, a bit like Dream’s powers in The Sandman, myths permeate and like magic are real, and there’s a bookish/meek male protagonist (almost certainly Gaiman).
It wouldn’t be so bad if Gaiman were doing something different in this novel and, at one point, it looked like he was – but then he decided to abandon that idea and return to familiar, dull territory. What am I talking about? The book opens with the funeral of his father – and that’s the key, or at least I thought it was, to this story. It’s about our narrator coming to terms with him and his father's poor relationship.
The “monster” our narrator brings into our world manifests as a nanny called Ursula (of course - typical “evil woman” name, real imaginative) who has an affair with the father. Our narrator doesn’t like her which angers the father who punishes him. The whole thing is framed in a fantasy style but it could also be seen as the young boy’s imagination dealing with this real life problem of a potential stepmother and violent adult behaviour - he has to think of it this way because he doesn't know enough about the real world yet. It’s not original but I don’t think Gaiman’s done anything like that before.
And then that idea/approach is forgotten just after the halfway mark as Gaiman devotes the rest of the book completely to fantasy. No clever ambiguity, no more ideas, just safe, dreary fantasy. Magic’s real, etc. whatever.
Besides that, I also liked the scene where our narrator is in the fairy circle, trying to be coaxed out of its safety by things pretending to be people he knows (which is another hint that our narrator is retreating into his imagination to deal with scary reality). It’s tense, eerie and the danger seems real – brilliant stuff.
Otherwise, The Ocean felt overlong despite being a relatively short book, likely due to too little happening. Gaiman’s an excellent short story and comics writer but he has problems when it comes to longer form pieces like novels - he’s unable to fully develop storylines or characters over time. This is also why so many of his novels have this episodic quality to them – he’s far too used to writing single issue-length scripts and short stories.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is unchallenging and typical fantasy fare for younger readers – not being a kid and having read a lot of Gaiman previously, the book failed to resonate with me. He continues to produce fine comics work today (and maybe short stories too, I haven’t read his latest collection, Trigger Warning, yet) but as a novelist he’ll always be mediocre at best. Gaiman's latest effort falls below his usual average level of novelistic quality.