In college I once got in a conversation about the Beatles with a guy about ten years older than me. I love the Beatles. He hated them. He explained it by saying, “you aren’t old enough to remember the hype.” He went into a little rant about the haircuts and jackets and massive merchandising around the band. I got all of that–I hated that kind of thing as much as he did. “But even with the hype,” I wondered, “how can you hate their music?”
I feel the same way about Neil Gaiman. Never mind the literary rock star persona and Fonzie jackets and salivating fandom. Even if you hate the hype, how could anyone hate his books? He’s the real deal. John and Paul could write the hell out of a pop song, and Neil can write the hell out of a novel.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, I think, his masterpiece, and one of the best short novels I have ever read. A writer can hit their high point by venturing into new territory, or by settling in and working familiar themes that have coursed through their canon. This is the latter. Gaiman has written before about shadow worlds just beyond the gate and hinted at the mythic behind the everyday, and now he tells a relatively simple story on that imaginative landscape with an economy missing from, say American Gods.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane confirms my suspicion that to really write about childhood — to nail it, to make the reader squirm with recollection — you can’t write for children. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say you can’t publish for children, but know that kids will gratefully retrieve the book from the adult section. Childhood is too harrowing for children. It’s not age appropriate.
Gaiman evokes that experience in a way no children’s book editor would let stand: a child cannot be this unjustly treated by adults. The gatekeepers will never let a book through the door that exposes, so nakedly, the central injustice of childhood: that adults get to be right even when they are wrong. I suspect that Gaiman began this book expecting it to be along the lines of Coraline or The Graveyard Book, but decided ultimately that he couldn’t do that without cutting essential scenes and tempering certain characters in a way that would fatally damage the story.
On the same note, fairy tales — real fairy tales — occupy a transcendent state. They are for the old parts of children and the young parts of adults. And the mistake so many authors and publishers make is in thinking that the importance of fairy tales is in the fancy or the whimsy, that they are meant to charm and not to enchant. There a bazillion books now with the trappings of fairy tales, books inspired by fairy tales, books that are “about” fairy tales in a quaint, clever, or sophisticated way, books that borrow from fairy tales but are mere slapdash pieces of formulaic pop fiction.
This book is different because it’s a straight-up fairy tale, true in a way you can’t get at with realism. It’s not cute or fanciful, nor is it cynically, commercially dark. I don’t even know if “scary” is a good word for it, though it definitely involves fear, it is of a more gut-wrenching and poignant sort. It’s too frightening to be dismissed as “scary,” the way most horror movies are, with lurching monsters and moody music.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a “Children’s and Household Tale,” too — to use the literal translation of the Grimms’ title for their collections. There are books with global reach, in whatever world they are set, and books that find epic reach within a closed environment. There’s a special kind of book that finds the world within a household (or, in this case, a quiet country lane), that opens up vistas by stepping through a wardrobe. In that way, this is more like Gaiman’s middle grade novels, but reaches deeper into the soil.
There are other observations I’d like to make, about the use of books themselves within the story, the comfort the book gives in its comfortable moments, the representation of wisdom and kindness, not “goodness,” as the proper counter to evil. The twisting of magic with scientific language, and the effective use of water and submersion as a motif. The emphasis on names, while the hero remains nameless. The understanding of how kittens and pie can be magical. The haunting feeling of betrayal, of vulnerability. The difference between defiance and courage. There are so many things to talk about, but I would gradually wring the life out of the book to do so. Like any fairy tale, this book defies description. As Gaiman himself has written, the only way to describe a story is to tell the story.