My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane during the 2013 Winter holidays, so perhaps the experience left me a little melancholy– I was on a sea cruise to the Caribbean which definitely didn’t feel like Christmas, so I read voraciously to keep myself amused. My reaction to my first non-graphic novel by Neil Gaiman was mixed, leaning towards the positive. This is the story of a child and an adult looking back at the formative event of his life through a haze of selective (magical?) amnesia. The protagonist (as far as I recall, he is never named) is a middle aged man visiting the haunts of his past after a funeral. He finds himself drawn down to the end of the lane that ran before his childhood home to the home of the Hempstocks, whom he only has a vague recollection of. Upon visiting the Hempstock farm, and especially the pond behind it– the “ocean” that lends the book a title- the protagonist recalls the dramatic events of his childhood, and his friendship with Lettie Hempstock. The rest of the book is shaped around the narrative of the past events from the perspective of a lonely seven year old boy. The suicide of a lodger at his home sets in motion a chain of supernatural events tied to the Hempstock family, who are.. something.. minor deities, witches, sorceresses… it is not specified. What is certain is that the three Hempstocks (Grandmother, Mother and Daughter) are wise, powerful and much more than they appear to be. The story builds up to the inevitable confrontation between a malicious entity from.. elsewhere.. and the Hempstocks, and the price that is paid to get rid of it.
The plot is executed briskly (albeit somewhat familiar) and Gaiman’s style is very engaging. I found the nameless narrator very compelling– Gaiman’s simple description of the protagonist’s 7th birthday party that nobody came to was quietly heartbreaking. The supernatural elements, by contrast, come off as a little hurried and overly familiar. The Hempstocks appear to dwell on some fairy nexus between worlds and can easily walk from one plane to another, dragging along the POV character with them without explaining much of anything. I felt like I had seen that before somewhere, but it did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. It also seemed very abbreviated, like I was reading an expanded novella instead of a novel.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is well crafted and will be a pleasant, slightly melancholy experience to read for juveniles and adults alike.