Here’s what you need to know: Neil Gaiman’s new book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow, 2013), is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read. You should read it too.
If you stop reading this post here, that’s okay. I’ve gotten my message across. But there’s so much more that I want to say.
I’ve known about this book for a while, from seeing ads for it. I was already interested, both because it’s Nail Geiman and because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is such a lovely, enticing title. What got me to actually buy it, though, was its physical look: The hardcover, the deckled edges, the lightly foiled jacket. It looks beautiful.
But of course the content is much more important. The frame story concerns a man about fifty years old who goes to his hometown for a funeral after several years away. After the ceremony, he drives around the town looking for his childhood. Eventually he makes his way to the old farmhouse where his old friend Lettie Hempstock used to live. An old woman receives him, presumably Lettie’s mother, who invites him for tea. But before he accepts, he goes around the back of the house and sits on the old bench facing the duck pond, what Lettie used to call her ocean. Facing that pond, he falls into a flashback.
He’s seven years old. The boy discovers that the opal miner who was renting the spare room in the family house died mysteriously, and the next day he wakes up with a coin in his throat. Lettie Hemptock, around eleven years old, offers to help him. She’s wise, and mysterious, and magical, but our narrator, with the innocence and acceptance of a seven-year-old, doesn’t question any of it. Lettie says someone is trying to give them what they want, but it’s not going well. She invites him to come along for company when she confronts the creature.
But the confrontation, of course, doesn’t go well. The creature finds its way from its world into ours, and takes the shape of Ursula Monkton, our narrator’s new babysitter. She’s very nice, but he knows what she really is. They hate each other. It only goes downhill from there.
I would like to say much, much more. Particularly about the epilogue, which returns to the frame story. But I can’t say more without giving away too much. You really should just read it.
The whole book is a memory. The narrator inserts comments here and there reflecting on his memory, or his actions. The memory theme becomes even more prominent when Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, patches a terrible evening out of existence using scissors and thread, and our narrator’s parents can’t remember it. It becomes clearer still in the epilogue, when we (and the narrator) come so several very important realizations.
The epilogue was very powerful. It actually made me feel emotional, which I never do. It had some deep resonance with me that I can’t even begin to figure out why. But the point is that memory is unreliable, it’s different every time. Events like the ones in the book could, plausibly have happened to any of us. Only we don’t remember it.
I usually have something to point out for improvement when I review a book. Not this time. Gaiman’s plot is flawless. As is the setting, and the characters—I missed Lettie Hempstock every time I closed the book, and her mother and grandmother. The language flows beautifully. I never wanted to put the book down, not because it has a thriller-style plot (it doesn’t at all), but because I just loved being in that world so much. There was perhaps one sentence that felt forced—but what is a sentence in the scope of a book? Nothing. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is perfect.