Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This was underwhelming. Not only has this book been hailed as Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys, it has also received ridiculous amounts of press during the last months. Even people like Neil Gaiman aren’t immune to being overhyped. I consider myself a fan of his work, but despite his fame and renown, I am still aware that even a great author can sometimes produce a mediocre novel.

ocean at the end of the laneTHE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE
by Neil Gaiman

Published by: William Morrow, 2013
ISBN: 0062255657
Hardcover: 181 pages

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm.

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

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When our nameless protagonist and narrator first returns to the pond behind his childhood friend’s house, we are first forced to learn about his incredibly boring, mediocre life. I was worried that the entire book would continue along those lines but, thank Neil, the narrator slowly startes to remember certain evens that occured when he was seven years old and had just met the girl named Lettie Hempstock. It was around the time his cat got run over by a man who was later found dead near Lettie’s house… Once we read the childhood memories and the strange things that happened to the protagonist as a boy, the story starts to kick off. The monsters were suitable scary and wonderfully strange. In Ursula, Neil has created a truly terrifying thing that manipulates its way into the family and leaves the protagonist almost completely helpless, at her mercy. It was these moments that were the strongest and most adult ones in the book and the author does a fantastic job of capturing that feeling only a child can know, that feeling of knowing you are right and equally knowing that nobody will believe you. When he seems to be trapped in Ursula’s powers, he can only watch her take over his family more and more.

Not every book that features a child protagonist is automatically a children’s book. But this is sold as an adult novel and it just isn’t. I would consider neither the tone, themes, language, nor even the scary bits particularly adult in nature. It is not as creepy as Coraline, not nearly as deep and moving as The Graveyard Book, and the one thing that I kept coming back to was that it read more like a stretched-out short story. In the acknoweldgements, Neil Gaiman admits that it started out as just that – if I had any say in it, it would have remained a short story. Because the plot is very, very thin, the story straight-forward and simple. Bad comes into the world and has to be kicked out again somehow. And then there’s (what I’m guessing is supposed to be) a twist at the end that reminded me very much of Coraline.

ocean at the end of the lane 1And that’s another thing. I am so sad that, at least in this book, Neil Gaiman has nothing new to show us. Every little thing that I considered good and interesting about this story, has been there before in one of Neil’s other books – and usually done better. The hunger birds, the mysterious people who seem to use magic but don’t bother explaining themselves. The protagonist who is incredibly gullible and just does what he is told. Even the name Hempstock (maybe even the family) has appeared in The Graveyard Book. It would have been nice to get at least one shiny, new Neil Gaiman thing – that’s what I had been looking forward to.

To be fair, there is a budding exploration of certain themes, such as the importance of money to humans, that would have been intriguing to follow. But these themes are merely scratched at and then dropped completely. The other theme would probably be the protagonist’s coming-of-age but I would also dispute that he does. He is a strange character, one that gets fleshed out and becomes three-dimensional in the quieter chapters, when he thinks about books and his kitten – only to lose all personality as soon as other characters show up. From convincing little boy to cardboard stand-in.

There were a few things I liked about the book, most of all the abovementioned Ursula-the-housekeeper, who could have sprung straight from a nightmare. But also little paragraphs, here or there, where Neil managed to uncover a truth about the world and touch me with his writing, like this comparison between adults and children.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.

And, of course, I have to be honest and admit that – had this been my first Gaiman novel – I would have been quite impressed with the weird nature of his monsters. They are never just giant spiders or ghosts under the bed. They are strange and old and have agendas of their own. Whenever the monsters took center stage, I was all in, I sucked up the words and was terrified at how lightly the protagonist took some of the mysterious things happening to him. That worm-thingy, and Ursula, did their job well and creeped me out in an enjoyable this-is-only-a-story-worms-can’t-really-do-that-can-they way.

In the end, I am left disappointed, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed certain chapters of this little book very much. I have a suspicion that those were the chapters that made up the original short story…

THE GOOD: Great monsters, creepy scenes, the occasional beautiful line.
THE BAD: A rehash of old ideas, a plot that felt forcibly spread out, a strange sometimes-real, sometimes-bland protagonist.
THE VERDICT: If you’re a fan of Neil’s work, you will read this anyway. If you’ve never read anything by him, you may like it a lot more than I did (not knowing that all the ideas have been used in his prior novels already). And if you’re looking for a quick read, pick this up, sure, why not? If it hadn’t been so short, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

RATING: 6/10 – Okay

10 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

  1. Carl V. Anderson says:

    I just finished it and I liked it quite a bit. It is no where close to my all-time favorite Gaiman, Neverwhere, nor what I think is his most well-written book, The Graveyard Book, but I think the themes worked well. It helped that I didn’t really read any of the hype. I knew it was there, and I’m always excited about a new Neil Gaiman book, but I wasn’t expecting it to be anything other than what he usually gives (which I fairly consistently think is great) and so my expectations were to get what I (mostly) got.

    I did think the description of the battle with the hunger birds went on too long and there I will agree with your assessment of it being stretched out. The rest of the length was just fine to me.

    I’m torn on it being a kids book vs. an adult one. I think it certainly would be okay for some kids, but the sexual themes, the themes of betrayal, are more adult than children regardless of what they see on television and in their real lives, as are the themes of adults hurting children. And as for the rest of it the story really is more about what happens with the adult version of the protagonist in the end…which I think most kids would find either confusing or at least incredibly dull.

    I would be lying if I wrote that I didn’t wish that every new Neil Gaiman book would blow the others out of the water. This certainly didn’t do that. I’d rate it below Neverwhere, Stardust (which also features a Hempstock), Coraline, The Graveyard Book, American Gods and the two main short story collections. So certainly not a trail blazer of a book. However, I have a feeling that there is a thread there tugging at me that will keep this one in my mind for a long time. I have a feeling my affection for it will grow in both writing about it and thinking about it. And I’ll grab the audio version at some point and I’m sure Neil reading it will make it come alive in ways I didn’t expect. I say that to say that I’m sure there are some raving about it who engaged with it in a way that raving is sincere and heartfelt. And then there are the groupies who will rave just because its Gaiman.

    I laughed in reading your review because it feels so similar to the experience I had with Scalzi’s book Redshirts. I heard and read SOOO much hype about that book, especially from the author, that I just couldn’t bear how disappointed I was with it.

    One book from my summer reading list down. Many more to go.

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    • Nadine says:

      Aaaaah, I have copious amounts of hate for Redshirts. 🙂

      But what you said about the audiobook version of this book is probably true. I have read and listened to Stardust and it felt like a completely different book when Neil read it himself. His voice and rhythm make a huge difference. I also preferred the BBC audioplay version of Neverwhere to the novel.

      It may also just have been my reading mood. At the moment, I am totally in the Pratchett-zone (Tiffany Aching’s fault!) and it probably wasn’t very fair to read Neil’s book with that mindset. Maybe I will get the audio version someday and give this another try.

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  2. Carl V. Anderson says:

    Not every book is for everyone, and Gaiman, like Scalzi, has a lot of fans who will praise it simply because it is by him. I’ve said before, and generally believe, that a weak Gaiman or Scalzi story is better than many really good efforts by others. Both men know how to tell a story and have literary passions that gel with mine. But to just blindly praise the work doesn’t serve anyone. There were things I really enjoyed in Redshirts, but the novel was not the brilliant piece of work that the hype machine said it was. Had I not read all the hype I probably would have enjoyed it more than I did. But the joke wore thin and there was just so much I wasn’t happy about in the book.

    As for The Ocean, I think Gaiman did a really nice job of telling the story he meant to tell, but it does stumble a bit. If Gaiman was producing the way he did in his early days most would love this, because it would just be one of many really cool things Gaiman was doing right now. When it is the result of something fans have been waiting years for (Neil’s next adult novel) then it does not live up to expectations.

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  3. Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books says:

    This is too bad; I was actually kind of looking forward to it. I haven’t found a Gaiman book that has really worked for me, and it sounds like this may not be the solution to my problems. Or maybe it will? I just want to be able to truly understand the Gaiman hype, which has not happened after reading one volume of Sandman, Good Omens, Coraline, and Neverwhere. Perhaps I’m just not his intended audience. I’m sorry that this story didn’t work out so well for you, especially considering that you’re a big Gaiman fan. Maybe there’s some way to access the original short story? Gaiman also seems like a prolific enough writer that he’ll probably have another book out in a year or two, so hopefully that one will be better!

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    • Carl V. Anderson says:

      “Gaiman also seems like a prolific enough writer that he’ll probably have another book out in a year or two, so hopefully that one will be better!”

      If only that were true. He USED to be that prolific a writer and I hope he returns to being so…or better put he really is still prolific but he rarely puts out novels. He writes Dr. Who episodes and the occasional short story but the novels seem to come with far less frequency than they used to, part of which may have to do with getting older and part because he is fairly newly married to a celebrity in her own right and he does a lot of traveling and other stuff.

      Gaiman is just like any other author, some love his work dearly (I do, even though I don’t like *everything* he does) and some don’t get it. I think hype gets in the way a lot with authors but I guess if I was an author that is a problem I’d want to have, vs. no one knowing who I was, ha! This one is short enough that if you can snag it from the library you should give it a try.

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  4. jdsfiction says:

    I enjoyed the book as I do with many of Gaiman’s stories. I have to agree with you though, it wasn’t as good as I was expecting. That may be partially due to the glowing golden hype the book was given. It did have its grand moments but felt sluggish at times.
    You gave a good review though, I think it’s great to look at both sides of the fence for a review.
    I look forward to future posts, thanks.

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    • Nadine says:

      Thank you.

      I think it’s important to stay fair. Of course, I broke my own rule because I love some of Neil’s work and that influences my opinion. But when a great writer produces a book that’s merely okay or the dreaded “nice” then we should be allowed to say so. I’m sure whatever he does next will blow all our minds. 🙂

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      • jdsfiction says:

        I truly hope the next one does. I’m a big fan of his work and he’s usually great for a mind-blowing journey. As for reviews (and pretty much life in general), honesty is always the best policy.

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  5. Garrison says:

    Neil gaiman is a lazy writer. The book is disjointed and aimless, the characters are passive. There is a general malaise of misery, as in all gaiman books. The plot is a noodle and nothing is resolved. Neil gaiman is mediocre at best. A quirky writing style does not make a good novel. Gaiman’s book Ocean at the End of the Lane reads like he doesn’t want to write anymore. Waste of time.

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