My first thought upon finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was “why isn’t this a short story?” I was satisfied to find Gaiman’s answer in the acknowledgements section:
This novel began, although I did not know it was going to be a novel at the time, when Jonathan Strahan asked me to write him a short story. I started to tell the story of the opal miner and the Hempstock family (who have lived in the farm in my head for such a long time), and Jonathan was forgiving and kind when I finally admitted to myself and to him that this wasn’t a short story, and I let it become a novel instead.
I don’t usually begrudge Gaiman a few extra chapters because he has created many weird and beautiful images over the years, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is thin. After the unnamed narrator accompanies his neighbor, Lettie Hempstock, to dispel an otherworldly creature and disobeys her instructions, the creature follows him home in the form of a beautiful (and creepy) woman named Ursula Monkton. Because the story is told as a flashback, you know the narrator won’t die at age seven. There’s not much suspense in this story, no matter how menacing Ursula Monkton becomes.
Even when I don’t like his stories, I enjoy Gaiman’s light, magical tone. Here, though, it feels phoned in, like he’s ticking boxes. With the exception of the Hempstocks, everyone is flat and interchangeable. The narrator’s father, mother, and sister are generic and forgettable—they lack names and distinct qualities. I don’t feel right labeling this a weakness or drawback since it’s something Gaiman did intentionally:
Names do have power in this book, and naming things and people was something that fascinated me. None of his family have names, after all. They just have roles. (interview with Joe Hill)
Why is this desirable? There’s a moment when the narrator is hiding from eerie creatures who assume the shape of his family to trick him out of hiding. Readers can’t always play along with little mysteries, but while I was trying to sort out whether the people were real or fake it occurred to me that I knew nothing about his family. Ultimately, the narrator knows they aren’t his family because they can’t pass a magical boundary. He doesn’t evaluate their personalities or mannerisms, because they don’t have personalities or mannerisms. Similarly, the old version of the narrator that opens and closes the book is wishy-washy and undefined.
Wishy-washiness can’t pass for magic. Consider this passage, where the narrator finally figures out the name of the adorable kitten who follows him around:
She had such unusual eyes. They made me think of the seaside, and so I called her Ocean, and could not have told you why. (236)
But you just told us why. You said her eyes reminded you of the seaside. A water-related name at this point is not a surprise. If Gaiman wants to imply that some soft impulse in the boy’s brain has finally comprehended the cat’s name, this passage should be something like, “She had such unusual eyes. They made me think of the seaside, and so I called her Table and could not have told you why.” This is why you should listen to Neil Gaiman’s stories instead of reading them. The way his wonderful voice would drag out this passage would make you imagine the adorable kitten finally revealing her name and you’d feel something. In print, though? Nothing.
There are some pretty passages about the magic of childhood, but—again—these would have worked in a short story. If you’d like to read a Gaiman book about the awkwardness of childhood and weird neighbors, I’d start with Coraline.
Overall: 2.5 (out of 5) Two-point-something scores always look harsh, but this book felt well below average to me. If you’ve got ten minutes and would like to hear what Gaiman’s wonderful voice can do with one of his newer stories, turn off the lights and check out “Click Clack the Rattle Bag” right here.