Childhood memories that have been buried, but never forgotten: that's the territory of "Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman. Critics seem to be treating Gaiman's latest as a fairy tale for adults, but more serious – and even occasionally dour – rather than whimsical.
The plot involves a man on his way to his sister's home in rural England (Sussex, where Gaiman himself grew up), who deviates from the path, finds a dilapidated house, and is hit with a sudden feeling that he's been there before. Apparently he has – when he was seven.
The narrative then follows the protagonist into the past, where he recalls his friend, Lettie, and how she and her less-than-normal family helped him out when strange things were going on around town. It all started when a man boarding with the protagonist's family decided to take his own life. This led to a chain of further events and suddenly, out of the blue, the protagonist had a governess, Ursula Monkton (can't you already tell how awful she is?), to deal with.
Entertainment Weekly's reviewer finds that the book and many of its characters, particularly the governess, have potential – but not the narrator.
"The narrator is never named, but he's clearly a Gaiman analog, and the description of his rural upbringing has the pleasant specificity of autobiography," states the EW review. "Unfortunately, the protagonist is also the novel's least compelling character." As for the story itself, EW offers a mixed report (and a grade of B-): "As a coming-of-age reverie, Ocean is a fitfully interesting trifle, but you're constantly catching glimpses of a more interesting, darker, stranger tale farther down the lane."
The critic for the New York Daily News calls the characters in "Ocean at the End of the Lane" to be enthralling. The governess is described as, "evil personified" and Gaiman is congratulated for bringing her character to life, as well as vividly evoking the terror the main character went through at her hands. Overall, says the Daily News review, Gaiman's book "evolves into a haunting tale that comes to a close back where it began, with a middle aged man at the end of a country lane with much to reflect on, most particularly the extraordinary sacrifice that allowed him to live the most ordinary of lives."
Brian Truitt, writing for USAToday, finds "Ocean at the End of the Lane" to be similar to to other Gaiman works, like "Coraline" and "MirrorMask," in that danger lurks nearer than readers initially believe. Also, says Truitt, Gaiman excels at, "putting readers in the shoes of his rich characters" and making "his monsters that much more sinister when a woman like Ursula is just downstairs."
William Alexander, writing for The StarTribune, praises the book. Alexander finds the younger version of the narrator to be "far more vulnerable and dependent than the adventurous kid protagonists we usually see." Consequently, he says, "experiencing his childhood adventure from an adult perspective is wrenchingly, gorgeously elegiac."
The end result, notes Alexander, is a book for adults – but only in subversive kind of sense.
" 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane,' is heralded as Gaiman’s first novel for adults in eight years," Alexander notes. "It isn’t. Not exactly. It is narrated by an adult, and it is addressed to adult readers, but the book is actually for the children those adults used to be."
Can we ever recapture our childhoods? No, we cannot. A book that reminds us how to see the world through a child's eyes may be as close as we can get. And, according to the critics, that seems to be the gift that Gaiman is offering in his latest book.
Casey Lee is a Monitor contributor.