Book Review: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” (2013) by Neil Gaiman

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I find it difficult to describe how The Ocean at the End of the Lane affected me, but I think it comes down to a two key elements: childhood and mythology.

Gaiman starts the book off with a well-chosen quote by Maurice Sendak (“I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things, but I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew them. It would scare them”) and then goes from there: children know horror and they understand everything even when they don’t. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is both a children’s book and not a children’s book at all, which, again, fits with Sendak’s writing philosophy: “kid books, grown up books… That’s just marketing. Books are books.” Like Coraline before it, this work does not talk down to younger readers. It tells a complex story full of darkness and unexplained horrors and never offers an easy way out. I loved this book now, and I just know that if I had read this as a child, my younger self would’ve poured over this book obsessively and would have started to look for enchanted objects in the garden, digging for opal stones and dolls’ eyes and little tin soldiers.

This brings me to my second point: Gaiman often does not offer an explanation for the events that take place. He just shows you this fantastic, mindboggling thing, and then when you stare at him and demand answers, he shrugs and smiles enigmatically. Some people may find this frustrating, but I find that it is an important part of what attracts me to his books: their timeless magic. Gaiman’s books often don’t feel like he made them up himself, but seem more like ancient tales that feel familiar, like they’ve always been woven into our cultural heritage. He even touches upon this in the book itself: “I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” See the pattern here?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book that just is, that creates an incredibly vivid storyworld with so many wonderful little details that you can almost taste the honeycomb on your tongue when you close your eyes, feel the dirt underneath your feet, smell the flowers. You don’t know what it is or where it all came from, but somehow, deep down, you understand. Gaiman plunges you into the darkness and suddenly you feel like you know.

…You know?


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3 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” (2013) by Neil Gaiman

  • December 6, 2014 at 2:24 pm
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    I’ve heard so many good things about this book, I would love so much to read it right now. Sadly, it’s not possible for me in this moment, but hopefully soon!

    Your words truly motivate people to go get the book; they capture!

    Reply
  • December 8, 2014 at 9:46 am
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    “Timeless magic” about sums this book up. I’ve only read one another Gaiman book so far, and Neverwhere could be described in a similar way. Had I read “Ocean” as a child I would’ve also been brought to a different world; I know the worlds inside my head would’ve been greatly influenced by the details of this book.
    (Also I really really loved the concept of knowing everything there is, was, or will be to this universe, but forgetting once you leave that pond/ocean. It speaks to the mystical ancient magic in our hearts, without ignoring the mundane, which is the inevitable forgetting of such inexplicable wonders.)

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  • December 10, 2014 at 8:57 pm
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    As a child I was obsessed with mythology and dark, magical stories, so I think I would have enjoyed this then and definitely would now. Sendak’s philosophy reminds me of my friend’s father, who had read Franz Kafka’s short stories to her as bedtime stories, including A Country Doctor.

    Reply

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