Imaginative, atmospheric and well-written. 3.5/5 stars.
The blurb: Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
I can’t quite remember if I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I think I may have, but it was so long ago I can’t be sure. So to all intents and purposes, this is the first thing I’ve read by him and I was looking forward to it very much.
The book is short (235 pages) and I read it quickly, finding some sections gripping. However, my overall experience was a bit flat. That is, I reached the end of this book, closed it, placed in on the table next to me and thought, “Huh.”
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s an original, inventive and incredibly well-written story. All the characters are well-drawn and I particularly enjoyed the Hempstock women who, at points, reminded me of the wonderful witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. The plot is solid, the fantastical elements are woven into the everyday reality of our narrator’s world seamlessly and there are a few truly frightening moments.
Perhaps I was disappointed because I was expecting more of an adventure tale when this story is reflective and melancholy, an ode to lost childhood and the slipperiness of memory. Also, something I can’t put my finger on just felt “off”. Maybe it’s the narrative point of view: the story is told by a man in his forties, re-accessing and reliving memories from when he was seven. At times the point of view is entirely consistent with the level of maturity and knowledge we might expect from a seven year old. But at other times this consistency slips, muddling a more adult consciousness with that of the child.
My instinct tells me this isn’t Gaiman’s best work and I look forward to reading something else by him. Perhaps I’ll (re?)read American Gods.
Any recommendations for the next Neil Gaiman book I should try? Neverwhere? American Gods?