Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of time, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.
So, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It begins with a man driving away from a funeral and surprising himself by ending up at his childhood home. As he sits beside the farm pond that the decidedly different ladies at the end of the lane always referred to as an ocean, he recalls with unexpected clarity the momentous events of his seventh year. They began with the suicide of a lodger in his parents' house and end with his discovery of the true nature of things at the Hempstock house at the end of the lane where things are a good deal more magical than they might appear.
I hesitate to reveal much more than that because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short book that's full of surprises best met within its pages. Suffice it to say that Gaiman is at his best creating the world of a bookish seven-year-old boy without any friends to speak of, who spends his spring holidays discovering the dangerous and magical things that lurk so closely beneath surface of the humdrum world where he lives. Gaiman captures the perfect mix of the innate helplessness of childhood with the boy's desire to be the hero of his own story like the kids in the many books he reads. For the second time this year, I found myself reading a book in which the narrator has no name, and that somehow makes the stories being told that much more engaging.
It's hard to describe what makes Neil Gaiman's books so compelling. It might be his knack for expertly co-mingling the world we know with magical worlds of his own creation. Reading Gaiman can be an exercise is whimsy and nostalgia. His stories put me in the mind of being in grade school and reading James and the Giant Peach for the first time. It's refreshing to be a "stuffy grown-up" and be allowed, nay, encouraged by Gaiman to believe again that magic both good and evil is never so far away as we might think. That said, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no mere children's book, rather it's a book that confronts the real presence of fear in everyone's life however young or old they might be, the inherent dangers of getting what you want, and the benefits of having a hand to hold onto.
"Dunno. Why do you think she's scared of anything? She's a grown-up, isn't she? Grown-ups and monsters aren't scared of things."
"Oh, monsters are scared," said Lettie. "That's why they're monsters. And as for grown-ups..." ... "I'm going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world."
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a great addition to Gaiman's work, and, I think, one of my favorites. It's a beautiful modern day fairy tale that touches on universal feelings with the help of magic and myth. If you're looking for a story to get totally caught up in this summer, then I highly recommend taking a dip in Gaiman's Ocean.
(Many thanks to the people at William Morrow for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)