The Ocean at the End of the Lane | Neil Gaiman

Myth and magic

At this point, it’s safe to say that Neil Gaiman is an industry unto himself. Possibly the most audience-savvy writer working in the English language today, his considerable talent, rumpled charm and unerring finger on the pulse of an ever-expanding and devoted fan base has led to mainstream success of the sort rarely afforded to careers launched in comics.

Despite remaining a loyal member of said fan base, I admit that a hint of trepidation diluted my excitement over The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman’s first adult novel in eight years. It’s been difficult to ignore the fact that he’s stretched himself thin these last few years, throwing himself into a bewildering array of trans-media projects—Doctor Who episodes, screenplays, more children’s books than a panda can sneeze at, the odd commencement speech. As I had feared, The Ocean at the End of the Lane features all his well-worn tropes—the potency of story, mythological bestiaries, unmoored children, mysterious cats—and more. The good news is that a few chapters in, I didn’t care.

On many levels, reading this book is like watching the author wrestle and come to uneasy terms with ghosts, fears and niggling preoccupations that have haunted him in perpetuity. The plot is secondary, the foundation for an evolving evocation of mood, time, geography. It begins with the adult narrator returning to his hometown for a funeral, only to rediscover a farmhouse at the end of a familiar lane that—like Proust’s tea-soaked madeleines—triggers memories of a rather eventful childhood. The bad times arrive after the narrator’s seventh birthday, when the suicide of a lodger at his parents’ home sets in motion a series of life-altering developments—his friendship with Lettie, an oddly wise 11-year-old girl, the degeneration of his home life and, most ominously, the appearance of an ancient Lovecraftian being with malicious intent.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Headline, 256 pages, Rs399
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Headline, 256 pages, Rs399

But sombre introspection aside, there is a lovely narrative intermingling of what childhood is and what, in tired hindsight, we imagine it to be. Numerous iconic representations of childhood paraded across my mental projection screen as I read, of Stephen King’s It and Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny And Alexander, of intrepid young friends hiking into dark places to confront faceless things and bedrooms turned threatening by the play of light and shadow. Gaiman has always been good at writing children—I maintain that he out-Pottered J.K. Rowling years before Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone with his marvellous DC/Vertigo miniseries The Books of Magic. He perfects the child’s perspective and voice here, with stretches reminiscent of his other semi-autobiographical wrangling with past selves, the unutterably beautiful The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, a graphic novel illustrated by the inestimable Dave McKean.

It helps that the book works well at the storytelling level. Minor outcroppings of unnecessary verbiage aside, the narrative forges ahead energetically, radiating portent. Sentimentality is kept at bay by periodic grounding in moments of shocking realism, including a disconcerting account of the violence inflicted upon the young narrator by a parent, intensified by the clinical fashion in which it’s delivered.

The villain is a riff on Gaiman’s usual mythological antagonists, given corporeality in Ursula Monkton, a sinister housekeeper hired by the narrator’s parents. A deliciously loathsome entity that flaps out of the liminal spaces between this world and Elsewhere, she’s less Julie Andrews and more Charlotte Rampling circa The Night Porter, crackling with psychosexual energies. Arrayed against her are Lettie and family, themselves the ageless representations of primordial forces straight out of The Sandman, American Gods and a couple of millennia’s worth of mythmaking.

Gaiman is the canniest of storytellers, practised at reappropriating the old stories imprinted into our shared consciousness. When he leans too heavily on those tropes, his work can seem a little prefabricated. This time, he uses these devices to explore a new canon—the mythology of Neil, age 7. Unlike much of his recent work, this is a book that looks inwards, excavating new things to say with the old words.