“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman – Book Review

First things first– When I was in college, I worked in the library at the circulation desk where I had a (sometimes nice but in this case extremely inconvenient) habit of picking up books and reading them without checking them out. I never had any issues with this, I’d just leave the books at the desk and read them while I was working. In one instance though, I got about thirty pages into “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” before checking the holds that were going to be picked up that week only to realize that someone had placed a hold on the book while I was reading it. I didn’t get to finish it, and I kept meaning to go back to it, but the book was returned to the library days before the end of the school year and after I graduated it just got away from me. That is until recently, when I was stumped for something new to read and I remembered how much I enjoyed the beginning of this book I read until someone else checked it out.

In a weird sort of way, my personal experience in not being able to finish the book sort of lines up with the protagonist of the story. An unnamed character, Gaiman’s protagonist undergoes a number of experiences that even as he reminisces on the events as an adult he can’t quite seem to make sense of. Somehow not finishing the book and having an understanding of how it ends taken from me (for lack of better phrasing) the first time I tried to read it just seems like a fun twist of irony given the story’s mysterious nature.

I don’t want to give the plot away in reviews on here in case you’re interested in reading it, so I’ll share just what you need to know– The story follows our anonymous protagonist as he re-visits his childhood neighborhood as an adult. He reminisces about his time there, with a particular focus on the house at the end of his street. In said house, three generations of women ending with his childhood friend 11-year-old Lettie, who seem to either possess magical powers or somehow transcend time (and sometimes both) take care of him when he finds himself falling victim to a number of unfortunate circumstances.

While some of these circumstances are quite dark, others are relatable, and the way Gaiman writes the story feels like he’s seamlessly blended the character’s middle aged thoughts of reminiscing with language a seven year old (as he was when he lived in the neighborhood) would use. The way the main character explains what is happening and how it’s affecting him comes off as relatable just from the reader having a basic understanding of how a child would interpret such events, and it’s interesting to see how the character reflects on things that even as an adult are not quite possible for him to understand.

The book is definitely a fantasy, and at times gives me almost old school Disney storytelling qualities in that there is magic involved somehow and the protagonist feels he’s supposed to accept it without question. Even when he does question some of the more fantastic things he’s seen and witnessed, he’s met with matter of fact answers that don’t really explain the situation to someone like himself who isn’t in the know.

Overall it’s a short book so it should be a quick read if you’re looking for something with a little fantasy, but a lot of reality balancing it out. It’s an interesting story to get lost in, as Gaiman’s writing essentially shares enough details of the more fantasy-based happenings in the story to hold your interest, but not so much that it’s entirely spelled out to you.

If you’re looking for a story that will nicely tie up all the loose ends this might not be the book for you (and it usually isn’t for me– In general I don’t love anything open ended. I usually prefer to know what the author’s intention is rather than having it left up to me). But the mysteries that aren’t explained in this story do work given the rest of the plot, and the fact that the main character is also left with questions, too (some as simple as not being sure if he can believe some things actually happened in his past, others more technical as in how did such things happen, and some outright moral as in was he truly worthy of such things happening to him.

Part of me wishes I finished the book when I had started it in college, as I’m thinking some parts of it would have stood out or struck a cord differently with me for where I was in my life back then, but ultimately I think it’s fitting that I have some memories to look back on of when I started the book not knowing where it would go the same way Gaiman’s protagonist looks back on the whole story he’s telling years later.

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