The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, in part, a novel about childhood, written from an adult perspective. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, who in the present remembers the events of the book, which happened when he was seven years old, which was about forty years ago.
His parents, in order to make ends meet, take in a lodger. He is a cruel opal miner from South Africa, who due to his gambling debts, steals the family car and commits suicide in it. However, due to him committing suicide in a magical place, his death summons forth a Lovecraftian monster from another universe. Thankfully, three women live on a farm at the end of the lane, The Hempstocks, who fight against the monstrous being. The Hempstocks are of course not human at all, but in fact powerful supernatural beings, of whom the oldest is even older than the universe. On their farm is a duckpond, which is in fact the ocean of the title.
One of Neil Gaiman's strengths as a writer has always been his ability to ground the fantastic in mundane reality. And that ability is very much in evidence here. The story is partly autobiographical and it is not hard to recognize Gaiman in the lonely and bookish child, who lives "more in books than.. anywhere else" and grows up to be an artist. He fills the book with little details, obviously from his own childhood in the 1960s, that make the story and its world interesting and convincing.
His stylistic strength as a writer is here too, the book is a delight to read. The text flows in a way that is very rare and it is very quotable. The characterization is very strong too. I particularly liked the portrayal of the narrator and his father, and their relationship. As anybody familiar with The Sandman might expect, Gaiman's non-human characters are also very well drawn, both the monstrous villian and the Hempstocks (who, by the way, reflect the archetypes of Maiden, Mother and Crone).
As I said before, this is a book about childhood and it is one of the best books I have read on the subject. Gaiman brilliantly captures the wonder of childhood:
“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in
small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the
world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments
that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”
But as the quote implies, Gaiman is very much aware of the vulnerability of children, which is the source of much of the horror of the novel. Indeed, the narrator seems much more vulnerable to human adults, than to the inhuman monstrosities he must face. At one point, the Lovecraftian monster that is the villian of the book even transforms itself into an adult human, and by doing this becomes more of a threat to Gaiman's boy hero than it was before.
This way, Gaiman cleverly connects this mundane human fear all children have, with a grand cosmic, Lovecraftian horror, where the reality we know is, as he delightfully puts it, merely "a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger". This dark perspective is put into contrast by the Hempstocks, who act as a powerful, but benevolent counterforce to the immense monsters, who haunt the cosmos.
This is a rare book. It is a novel about childhood, which doesn't fall into shapeless nostalgia, but instead retains the wisdom that comes with growing up and applies it to childhood in order to bring light to it. Gaiman manages to keep both the wisdom of age and the ability of a child to see an ocean in a pond.