The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

It’s been months since I read this, and I haven’t written the review yet, because I wanted it to be the best thing on this blog because this book deserves it. But that’s just not going to happen, so I’ll just ramble a bit and get this posted. If Rothfuss can’t write a review, I shouldn’t worry if I can’t.

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The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane

by Neil Gaiman
Hardcover, 181 pg.
William Morrow Books, 2013

I like myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets. Masonic, mythic secrets to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?

While not properly a myth, there is a mythic quality to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This slim volume is magic. Just magic. It struck me in a very personal place. Between lines like:

I was not happy as a child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.

Books were safer than other people anyway.

and

I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.

I can’t remember a narrator I identified with as much as I have this one, that’s where my head was as a child — I don’t think I could’ve come close to putting it into those words then . . . but now? I tell you, those words resonated with me.

Other than a little time with the narrator as an adult bookending the novel, this is primarily a story about a boy — but this isn’t a children’s book. Yeah, Coraline and The Graveyard Book aren’t your typical children’s books in subject or tone, but there’s something different about this. Yeah, there’s a sex scene, but that’s not what makes it adult fiction (not that it’d be appropriate elsewhere, obviously) but this is 1. a look at childhood from an adult perspective, it’s about looking back — kids wouldn’t be able to appreciate that and 2. honestly, I found it too frightening for kids. Since it’s told as a flashback, I knew the narrator would survive — but that didn’t keep me from being worried about what was going to happen to him in some pretty nasty situations.
The narrator tells us

I was a normal child. Which is to say, I was selfish and I was not entirely convinced of the existence of things that were not me and I was certain, stock-solid unshakably certain, that I was the most important thing in creation. There was nothing that was more important to me than I was.

and while remaining honest about children, as is typical with Gaiman, there’s an (over-?)romanticizing of childhood throughout The Ocean, this time coupled with a de-romanticizing of adulthood — or at least of grown-ups. We’re told,

grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.

Hard to argue with that.

Childhood friendship is also a theme in this book, but one I really don’t have a nice quote for — it’s something that Gaiman shows us throughout rather than telling us about. The Ocean is about the power of reading, and one good friend — which is all a lonely boy needs. And as we see here, the effect of that friendship and the memory of will last decades.

A quick, engrossing and moving read — with the added bonus that a quotation from “The Nightmare Song” got Mandy Patinkin’s voice stuck in my head for a while. A book I will return to soon.

Still don’t have a good answer to why “adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?”

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5 Stars

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