This is a short book and simple enough to summarize: A man, returning to visit his childhood home in rural England, finds that the scenery evokes strange and perilous memories that couldn't possibly be real - about a supernatural attack on the neighborhood when he was seven years old, and the little girl who saved his life.
It's a beautifully-told, magic-infused tale that I couldn't quite love.
The problem I always have with Neil Gaiman's books is that they remind me of other books that I liked better. Books by Clive Barker or China Miéville or, in this case, Peter S. Beagle. There is a lot in The Ocean at the End of the Lane that reminds me of Beagle's Tamsin, but I loved that book wholly and completely while I... appreciated The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
I'm still giving it four stars, because it is a lovely story. But I can never really immerse myself in Gaiman's books. There's something that feels artificial about them, like I can see the wires manipulating the marionettes. It's hard to describe, and I know this is a minority opinion.
I just wanted more from The Ocean at the End of the Lane, like I wanted more from American Gods and Neverwhere and Stardust. Not a longer book, but a deeper book. I wanted to feel something for Lettie Hempstock and her strange relatives. I wanted to be captivated by the narrator's ordeals, especially once the devil came out to play. I wanted to understand the villain and what its true goals were. I wanted a plot development that felt truly unexpected.
I don't mean for this review to skew so negative. There were many aspects of The Ocean at the End of the Lane
that I enjoyed. It reads quickly, smoothly, and beautifully - Gaiman is a very talented wordsmith without ever being ostentatious about it. That's a rare enough skill, even among best-selling authors, that I always pause to appreciate it when I find it. For instance -
I had been here, hadn't I, a long time ago? I was sure I had. Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.
And speaking of which, the way he describes those foggy childhood memories, pulled up from hidden depths by the thread of a sight or a smell, is incredibly resonant. It perfectly mirrored the way I feel whenever I return to my childhood home and suddenly start tripping over all kinds of memories and emotions that had been dormant for years.
At first, the narrator's recollection of his childhood is engaging and bittersweet. He had been a thoughtful, sentimental, bookish boy who often felt misunderstood and lonely. The very first memory that comes to mind when he returns to the neighborhood is: Nobody came to my seventh birthday party. His parents are distracted and aloof; his one companion, a kitten, is killed senselessly. It was in these mundane miniature tragedies that I really felt for this character.
But then, when the story started to get all magical... the magic left the story. For me, anyway. It started down well-trod fantasy paths: the maiden-mother-crone goddess, the evil entity that employs female sexuality as a weapon, the battling spells of protection and possession. All of it a metaphor for the protagonist's coming-of-age. It's all very technically well-done, an absorbing and appealing read. I can't find anything to complain about, but it just felt sort of flat to me.
My biggest disappointment, I think, is that Gaiman failed to make me love Lettie Hempstock the way he made me love the narrator. If he had, it would have affected me more, what happened to her. But she, like all of the other characters, felt paper-thin by the end.
But maybe I just couldn't love this tragic, supernatural, British coming-of-age story because that place in my heart is already occupied by Tamsin.
I'll probably keep reading Gaiman, hoping every time that this will be the one that wins me over.