The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the World. New York: William Morrow, 2013

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Before you read this, you have to understand that if I were fifteen years old, and some company were in the business of manufacturing posters of authors, I’d have a poster of Neil Gaiman on my wall among all the rock stars. He kind of looks like a rock star, so even if author posters were considered uncool by my friends, I might be able to get away with it without having to worry that my coolness factor would suffer. Maybe I’d even convince some other fifteen-year-olds how cool he is.

Having said that, I now have to say thatΒ I approached his latest work for adults a little warily. I’ve got him on a pedestal, and he’s bound to fall off it at some point. I needn’t have worried, though. Gaiman has a way of lulling me into a dreamlike state, and I’d entered it by the time I got to the third page of this short work.

Descriptions of the book I’ve read in reviews and endorsements call it a “fable”, and I suppose it is, but I prefer to stick with the label I’ve come to associate with Gaiman, which is “dark fantasy”. Our narrator here is a man in his forties who’s (appropriately) come home to attend a funeral and winds up on the lane where he lived as a boy. Here, he reminisces about some extraordinary events that occurred the year he turned seven.

Because the story focuses on a child, it can easily be read one of two ways. Maybe there really was an eleven-year-old girl with magical powers who lived at the end of the lane with her mother and grandmother and who took young George to another land where an evil force latched onto him. On the other hand, maybe he made it all up to deal with the fact that when his mother had to get a job, and the family had to hire a babysitter for his sister and him, something bad happened. A psychologist might say that reality and fantasy got confused in the boy’s mind, probably because he partly blamed himself for the fact that this woman came into their lives.

Being the person that I am, I prefer the former explanation. I want worlds within worlds that make up universes, where forces of good and evil confront each other, and I want some of us to be lucky enough to travel back and forth between worlds and to encounter those from other worlds living in ours. Isn’t that so much more fun and exciting than, “Well, something traumatic happened, and, in order to deal with it, your mind made up all this stuff”? Okay, I have to admit that the psychologist in me finds that fascinating, too, but it’s not nearly as much fun, is it?

One of the themes Gaiman explores in this work is the adult world seen through a child’s eyes. Adults are scary “know-it-alls”. In any good fantasy, dark or otherwise, our hero or heroine learns things, and one thing George learns here is that grownups are not all that different from children. One of my favorite quotes from the book is when George’s new friend tells him,

“‘Grownups don’t look like grownups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is there aren’t any grownups. Not one, in the whole wide world.'”

It’s a truth I already knew (although, if you put a gun to my head,Β I might argue that I’ve met a handful of “grown-ups” in child-sized packages in my life). Still, it was fun to spend some time in Neil Gaiman’s world, a world that can be frightening but also oh-so-beautiful, to be reminded that there aren’t really any grownups. Not one.

If you like fantasy, and you’ve never read Gaiman, this is a good place to start. Spend an afternoon with this one, and when you wake up, tell me how you interpret the dream.