I think the greatest compliment I can pay Neil Gaiman about THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is much like the novel itself — simple on the surface and yet, at the same time, deeply meaningful: I can’t imagine anyone else writing this book.
In THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Gaiman is as sharp as he’s been since AMERICAN GODS, mixing the wonder and powerlessness of childhood with a deep understanding of the myths and stories humans have told one another since the beginning of time. Somehow, the combination of magical beauty and terrifying darkness in Gaiman’s stories, sometimes taking place just moments apart and described in his magnificent, easy-going writing style, manages to feel entirely truthful — as though when you’re reading one of his books you’re understanding something that you were only peripherally aware of during your day-to-day existence.
THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is about friendship and loss and childhood and fear, and how all of these come together to make us into the person we become as adults. There’s a part in the story where our nameless narrator’s best friend, a mysterious young girl named Lettie Hempstock, tells him that all adults are really just children in disguise, that they may look big and tough and in control, but on the inside, where no one can see, they’re still the exact same person they were as a child. And as we see in the course of the book, no one is as powerless in their day-to-day lives as a child — a fact most people seem to have forgotten but which Gaiman uses to great effect in these pages.
Like the very best of Gaiman’s work, this book is hard to explain, because it’s about so very much. Perhaps the best way to describe it is this — you’ll be left thinking about this book for days afterwards, about the conversations characters had, about the themes Gaiman weaves together so effortlessly, about your own childhood and how that childhood still impacts who you are.
So maybe I was wrong when I said Gaiman’s singular ability to write this tale was the greatest compliment I could pay him; maybe it’s the simple fact that I’m going to be thinking about this book and what it means for days to come.