Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Note: I don’t think there are spoilers here, but if you are overly sensitive, don’t read on.

I think it was Ben that introduced me to Neil Gaiman. Actually, that isn’t true. Howard let me read his Sandman comics in college, as long as I was careful and I read them in his dorm room. He didn’t have many, since they had just come out, but as someone who always thought comics books were only about super heroes, I found them fascinating. But I still thought about them as comics and not books, and so I focused more on the “Sandman” part than the “author” part, as much as I still think of “Superman” and “Batman” and not the people who make the stories and the pictures.

So I guess it was still Ben who introduced me to Neil Gaiman the author. The book was American Gods and it was spectacular. Amazing. I read it and then immediately re-read it. It cemented me as a Gaiman fan forever.

From there I read Neverwhere, and I can never ride the London Underground without thinking about it. Then there was Stardust, which I liked but it didn’t “wow” me. And I realized I had read him as a co-author since I had read Good Omens, but I remembered more the Terry Prattchet side of that novel.

I was very eager for his post-Gods work, and I bought Anansi Boys the day it was released. It was solid, but while Gods was an elaborate, multi-course meal, Anansi Boys was more of a well crafted dessert. I began to wonder if Gaiman had peaked. That would be nothing to be ashamed of, since American Gods is a masterpiece, but I wondered if it would be the masterpiece.

So I bought The Ocean at the End of the Lane sight unseen and got it the day it was released. The first thing that hit me was the slimness of this book. It is tiny. It weighs in at a mere 181 pages. I don’t own many hardbacks that small, and I just looked up Damage by Josephine Hart, which I thought was small, and it clocks in at 208 pages. While 27 pages doesn’t sound like much, that is a full 15% of Ocean.

I figure I’ll be vilified by at least one of my three readers for harping about the size of this book, but I feel that when writing a review the reader needs to understand my biases, and I was expecting a full novel and not a novella. And let’s be clear, this is a novella. There is one story plot told from a single point of view where most of the action takes place over a couple of days. The problem is that there is no market for novellas, yet someone with Gaiman’s star power can manage to sell one as a novel.

Despite that, it is a brilliant story. It is told from the point of view of a seven year old boy who lives in Sussex. After an unfortunate death, he starts to experience strange events. In trying to understand them, he is introduced to a family that lives on a farm down the lane from his house. The family consists of three women: one old, one young and one middle aged (an obvious reference to the Fates). The youngest one, Lettie, takes him on an adventure to help solve these strange events with dire consequences.

Gaiman is a great storyteller, and while I enjoyed the whole book I couldn’t help but be disappointed. I think he has done so many children’s books and screenplays in recent years that the long form eludes him. It would be nearly impossible to craft a novel on par with Gods with all of the different projects in which he is involved. In reading the on-line reviews, many state proudly “I read it in one sitting!”. Well, who couldn’t? This is pretty much a children’s book with one or two young adult scenes, and I thought I was getting an adult novel I could sink my teeth into.

Fanboys prepare your flame throwers.

I will probably buy anything he writes, but for the next one I won’t pre-order it. I’ll wait and see what it is, and I’ll try to set my expectations properly.