Neil Gaiman has written a lot of things – excellent things, for the most part, even if some of them were not quite ones I loved as wholeheartedly as I can love specific things. I remember reading Neverwhere in high school, though I didn’t particularly enjoy it and thought it was forgettable – an opinion I revised somewhat when I was in college, which was also the time I read a majority of Gaiman’s works. I read the Sandman graphic novels, which I enjoyed overall though I don’t love everything about it. I read Stardust, which I do love, and American Gods which I love most of all and think is Gaiman’s best work. There have been others, of course, such as Good Omens (which I love), and Anansi Boys, which I didn’t love so much but thought was an all right book. Much of Gaiman’s production since has been mostly young-adult and children’s books (Coraline being the best of the lot), but I was looking forward to him putting out a novel for adults again.
And then, there was light: Gaiman announced that he would soon be putting out a book for adults. This announcement pleased a great many readers, who, though they enjoyed his works for younger readers, were quite happy to know that he would be writing for his older readers. The result is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is surprisingly short and, equally surprisingly, something that reads closer to his YA works like Coraline and The Graveyard Book – something which I was not expecting in the least.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins with a man – middle-aged, or thereabouts – who returns to his hometown to attend a funeral. In an attempt to escape the pressures of socialization after the funeral, he takes a turn around the town. He goes to the place where the house he lived in as a boy once stood, but it is gone, and instead he finds himself walking to the end of the lane, where a farmhouse stands. It is here, while looking at the duckpond at the back of the house, that memories come back to him: memories of a girl he used to know, who promised to protect him no matter what – and did.
The first thing that surprised me about this novel is its length. I was expecting something longer and more substantial than what I got – American Gods is a relatively meaty piece of writing and I rather expected Gaiman would write something of that length. In fact, I got worried that my e-copy was corrupted somehow, and by the time I got to the middle and realized that it was only one o’clock in the afternoon (I’d started the novel at breakfast, and was reading it steadily enough throughout the day), I checked the very last “page” (there are no pages, per se, on the Kindle). The Acknowledgements section appeared to be intact, but I was worried that my e-copy hadn’t downloaded correctly (as can happen on occasion, when the Wi-Fi at home is acting up), and that though what I’d read so far and the ending were intact, there would be some parts in the middle that were completely screwed up. I contacted Hope to check if it really was just that long, since she had finished the novel a while back. Apparently, it is really “just” that long, and I settled back to reading it, my expectations for length being tweaked to account for this new revelation. Truth be told, I found this particular revelation regarding the length a bit disappointing, and it presaged the other disappointment I had about this novel: its themes.
In his works for YA and children, Gaiman has a tendency to play with themes about coming-of-age with one’s wonder and imagination intact, of never losing sight of the things that makes life glorious to us as children. The protagonists of such works make some very terrible mistakes, or are forced to confront the consequences of mistakes made by others, but they find some way of resolving those mistakes, to come out on the other side happy, whole, and with their wonder and joy intact. These themes are once again present in The Ocean at the End of the Lane – tweaked slightly, to be sure, but still pretty much the same thing. In fact, the novel reads like a remix of some of the best aspects of Coraline and The Graveyard Book: readers who’ve read those two books will recognize not just themes, but even characters (the Other Mother from Coraline, in particular).
This is where a great weight of my disappointment lies. I suppose I was rather hoping for something along the lines of American Gods: something fresh, something that would come completely out of left-field – in short, something genre-changing, in the same way that the Sandman graphic novels were genre-changing. Barring that, I was hoping for something that I could settle into, a world I could live in for a week or two, a novel I could take my time exploring and (maybe) something I would be forced to put down late at night because it got too creepy. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is none of these things – as I said, much of what is written in this book has already been said and explored in Coraline and The Graveyard Book. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and I am happy to have read it (not least because Gaiman has lovely language when he writes), but it’s really not what I was hoping for: a truly “adult” novel, from a writer who is, I’m sure, capable of pulling something out of a hat and surprising everyone – though why he does not do so in his latest novel is rather puzzling.
Overall, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not quite what I expected it to be. It is still pleasant to read, as Gaiman’s language is at its best in this one (better than it was in any of his previous novels), but readers of Gaiman’s other works will probably sigh a little and shake their heads as they realize that they have seen this all before. Thematically speaking, there is nothing new here that one has not already encountered in Coraline and The Graveyard Book, and there are shades of characters from those novels and others besides that make an appearance in this one. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this (especially if one is coming to this book as a new reader of Gaiman’s works, or absolutely loves anything he does), it will likely give some readers pause, or perhaps leave them feeling a little disappointed.