Few writers working today can boast a cult following like that of Neil Gaiman’s. From his Sandman comics to his bestselling novels to his works for children, Gaiman has dabbled in everything from blogging to Twitter to writing for TV, film, and radio. And yet, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, out Tuesday, is his first novel for adults in eight years.
Not that he has been idling. This year alone, he has written an episode of Doctor Who and will publish two children’s books (Chu’s Day and Fortunately, the Milk) and a nonfiction book (Make Good Art, after his speech by the same name).
Fans will surely devour The Ocean at the End of the Lane just as they did his last, Anansi Boys, when it was published in 2005. The question is, can he convert skeptics who still refuse to take him seriously? Certainly, Gaiman has high expectations for the novel: “I think it's probably my best book, which is why I am very nervous about it,” he wrote in April on his online journal.
While I don’t think this is Gaiman quite at his best — how would you go about choosing that in such an expansive catalog? — to it may well be his most ambitious. Thematically and tonally, it is almost like an accumulation of all Gaiman’s past works. Although Ocean is being marketed as an adult novel, it reads closest in my mind to his children’s book Coraline, and holds the same quiet magic as his fable-like novel Stardust. At the same time, Gaiman mixes in the darkness of American Gods and the pure horror of his comics. This may seem like a lot to cram into 192 pages, yet, somehow, Gaiman by and large succeeds.
The story takes place in Gaiman’s native England, following his unnamed protagonist’s return to Sussex after many years away. There, the story is told through the narrator’s memories of when he was seven years old and befriending the mysterious Lettie Hempstock, who lived at the end of the lane. Using a child’s perspective to delightful effect, the narrator further recalls his family’s lodger’s suicide and the dark creatures from a time beyond time that awoke in the events that followed. “Ocean” additionally recalls traditional storytelling with its feline familiars, mythological significance of names, witchcraft and portals through time and space to other realms.
Although the circumstance of the narrator allows for a wonderfully naive perspective, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not without deeply dark and disturbing moments, which recall Gaiman’s absolute mastery of the horror genre. While it may initially seem like a children’s book due to the young narrator, it is most certainly not.
And yet, most significantly, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story concerning the bewildering gulf between the innocent and the authoritative, the powerless and the powerful, the child and the adult. Gaiman writes, “When adults fight children, adults always win,” and it instantly becomes the thematic centerpiece of the novel. As such, it appeals to the romantic sense of childhood that is itself a marker of adulthood.
Unsurprisingly, a film adaptation is already underway, although to wait for it is to miss the magic of Gaiman’s own visual writing. One magical moment, for example, is described as “Magnesium-flare bright. Fireworks. Night bright. Midday-sun-reflecting-off-a-silver-coin bright.” And while it takes 14 words to describe the brightness, it is nothing if not precise. Words, while graciously employed, are not wasted.
For those familiar with Gaiman’s work, The Ocean at the End of the Lane will not disappoint; after years of anticipation, it will perhaps be devoured too quickly, but it thankfully holds up well for rereads. For the reader new to Gaiman, Ocean is a novel to approach without caution; the author is clearly operating at the height of his career. There is no better place to begin.
Lead image: Mike Stetsovski via Flickr