The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Themes

  • Coming of age, Childhood memories, childhood trauma, repressed memories
  • nostalgia, introspection, life lessons, growth & loss, acceptance,
  • timeless & ancient things, fantasy

“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.”

I take a deep breath as I dive into this novella. The narrative is told in the voice of a middle-aged man reminiscing in the backyard of his childhood friend’s house. I fell into this nostalgia easily. At this point in his career, I think it is safe to say Gaiman is an author who has invaluably never lost the connection to and memories of our collective childhood experiences, and his body of work speaks to that inner child within us. The one who whispers secrets back into our thoughts that we hoped were repressed or never existed at all. That is what this story feels like: the eerie memories surfacing and disturbing the glassy surface of a pond until it ripples like the ocean. I was impressed at the natural flow of events, at the momentary reminders that no matter how real the feelings, the character himself is still simply sitting on a bench in present day, far removed from that time and place. The book does not give heavy-handed exposition, never feels like a cheap rehashing.

We are sitting on that bench with him, simultaneously balancing on that thread between the naïve freedom of childhood and the crushing reality of the adult world. When he slips from one side to the other, it is our heart that drops as the adult man finally ponders and reconciles the images of a painful past with full hindsight.

I love the balance of realism and fantasy that comes with Gaiman’s books. As adults we blind ourselves to anything beyond the dull physical world putting on a show while climbing into a box marked “Life” and ignoring the rest. Assuring ourselves as children that the complexities were simply beyond our understanding. We were more comfortable in that knowledge as kids, assuming (incorrectly) that it would all make sense when we grew up. Much like the man in this story we have realized we had a truer idea then, and as his past unfolds we no longer have the false security of thinking it will change when we reach a certain point. The fantastical elements never assault my suspension of disbelief, because they are all portrayed in that harsh filter of realism and ugliness in the right places. The supernatural is after all, a world that is as tangible as nature, but extends beyond our understanding of it. Something more open to children because they are caught existing between blurred lines.

This book is uncomfortable in places, it is thoughtful throughout, and of course it is magical. A single day read that will stay with you longer as you consider your own memories of the world that you came from, which no longer exists. I am always intrigued and weary of thinner novels, somehow knowing that they are a story concentrated. When written well, they can break you down, mark you, and sew you back up within a single afternoon, in a fraction of the pages most other novels boast. After devouring this novel I will be wearier still. In less than 200 pages, Gaiman pours a little boy’s trauma into your heart and seals it in with a perfect ending that seems too real, too possible, too much like the lies we tell ourselves: there never was, it was always. The Ocean at the End of the Lane sits in a place of honor among my endless reads. I recommend it to anyone who has ever had a childhood they know could never have been exactly as it was. If you are a fan of Gaiman or just drawn to this book then it was written for you.

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