At last! A new Neil Gaiman novel is always a breath of fresh air and it's been eight years since his last full-length outing, for adults at any rate. I'd already started twitching and itching, literary DT's are unpleasant in the extreme. Finally he has returned with The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, a short story turned novel which is so thoroughly Gaiman it's verging on ridiculous. Cliches abound about how reading a new work by a favourite author feels like slipping into a favourite, well-worn t-shirt but this takes it to extremes.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane begins near the end, with the narrator returning to his childhood home under unpleasant circumstances, sparking the memories of long-forgotten misadventures which form the core of the book. Recalling a childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, who once lived in a small cottage at the end of a lane, he pays a visit and his past comes flooding back. As a child he, his parents and sister lived happily in their country home until financial troubles forced them to take in lodgers.
One such lodger takes his own life in a moment of desperation, triggering a series of peculiar events in the village. Following a visit with Lettie to an otherwordly forest a mysterious presence starts giving the locals that which they most desire. Everything has a price though and our protagonist soon finds himself in deep trouble, with a manipulative nanny turning everyone against him and thwarting his every effort to set things right. Only Lettie and her family can see what is happening and stand a chance to return the world to normal.
Whenever I attempt to describe Gaiman's work to the uninitiated I usually resort to the old 'fairytales for grown-ups' line, my standby since American Gods and Stardust in particular. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane does not even require the 'adult' qualifier, being an unashamed and perfectly crafted fairy tale for a modern age. The tone of the tale will unsettle grown-ups and give some genuine scares to younger readers - if it were a movie the cover would doubtless display a "Contains scenes of extreme peril" warning. However in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and their ilk there is always hope, a ray of light for our heroes to cling to. Of course no real fairytale's ending is ever entirely happy - for how else would we learn about consequences? - but The Ocean At The End Of The Lane never sinks too deep into dark territory for us to get lost in its grim aspects.
And as with all great fairytales there is a message to be divined here. Or maybe not. Perhaps there are many. One of the joys of reading Gaiman is that it can be understood on many levels depending on the reader's mood at the time. On its most superficial level it is a simple story, one to be relished by young and old alike. However adult readers will soon realise what is triggering their unease while reading. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane plays skillfully on that harsh line forever fencing us off from our childhood days. It's a reminder of how quickly everything transforms from peaceful idyll to chaos, one moment cosseted in the bosom of a loving family and the next tossed out into an unforgiving world with little or no idea of what is happening. Younger readers may not realise this, having yet to face the great upheaval, but they will no doubt appreciate the message that things do get tough sometimes but you will survive as long as you hang in there; that there are people out there looking out for you as long as you can trust them enough to do so.
I'm trying desperately to find something in this book to criticise but it's just not happening. My initial reaction was that it was just too short - give me an epic like American Gods any day - but on reflection it's exactly as long as it needs to be. Indeed it was originally commissioned as a short story which refused to be constrained and kept growing to its natural length. The writing itself is everything you would expect from Neil Gaiman, so fluid and natural that it feels as if one is floating in a warm bath while reading, even at the darkest moments. In fact it's a security blanket as much as it is a book, one you'll want to wrap yourself up in before sleeping. There are no excuses, go out and buy it right now. As I type this in Taiwan there is a tropical storm overhead seemingly emptying the entire contents of the Pacific on my head and it makes me want to pick it up again and start reading. Whether you are a seasoned Gaiman fan or completely new to his works you will love this book, want to carry it around with you and probably make a little bed for it next to your own. Lovely stuff.
This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is available now and we heartily recommend that you pick up a copy along with Gaiman's entire backlist (yes, even if you've read them all before).