Sometimes a book comes along that is completely indefinable – so much so that all you can do is fling words about in the sheer hope that one of them might hit the mark. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, his first novel for adults since Anansi Boys, is so elusive that I can’t say for sure if this is one of those books. Yet, as you read it, something in the story sinks so deep into your consciousness that it doesn’t matter if you can’t pin down what it’s about, or what it’s like, or what kind of book it is, it just… is.
Gaiman’s dark, imaginative, fable follows the return of an unnamed, middle-aged narrator to his childhood home in Sussex, England, and to the childhood memories that are enmeshed there. His own home long gone, he makes his way to the ramshackle old farm at the end of the road, where Lettie Hempstock lived. Sitting alongside the farm’s pond – that Lettie called an ocean – the forgotten memories of his youth come flooding back.
I won’t be the first to refuse a rote description of plot and characters. Not only would it potentially give away everything, all the little twists and turns, but I’m not sure if the story can be put into any other words than those Gaiman himself has already used. I don’t think it should. There are the strongest female characters I have come across in some time; there is the depth of myth and the weight of the world; there are the simple pleasures – and terrors – of childhood. There are moments of darkness that took me totally by surprise and left me feeling unpleasant and uncomfortable (but good reading is not always about comfort) and there were moments so lovely and gentle that the unpleasantness was banished.
This book is much like its titular ocean – much, much bigger on the inside. That said, though a little slow moving at the start, it is a quick read (both in literal length and in the fact that you cannot put it down). There were a few moments where I was less than enamoured, where I wondered what all this singing praise was about but those passed pretty quickly. It isn’t perfect, no. But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is dark, and lovely, and true.