The British literary establishment, or at least the critical demi-monde, have – we sense – long wanted to like Neil Gaiman without quite having a book to solidly recommend. Fan favourite American Gods, for instance, was a little too modish, a little too genre for the Guardian reviewers to wholeheartedly embrace without losing the sneering aspect they sometimes adopt when talking about other writers who sell a lot of similar books. Anansi Boys was fun but, still, there was the sense that here was a writer of comic books dabbling with novels. Gaiman, we sense, is a nice guy and people like him but the critical establishment could not wholeheartedly embrace a dabbler – even a dabbler widely regarded as producing some of the best graphic novels of the last 30 years (and, we should add, this confusion is shared to a certain extent by the publishers who only list six of his thirty plus books as if to say yes, we know he has a hand in comic books but these are the ones we should be taking seriously). The arrival of The Ocean at the End of the Lane should help all of those people who have wanted to embrace Gaiman (but have been somewhat nervy about it) no end.
Like the ocean described in the novel (which can be kept in a pond or picked up in a bucket), the tale Gaiman tells feels enclosed on all sides, clean, well executed and neat – yet for all that it is also extremely compelling, quietly thrilling and, at times, a leetle bit scary. Our narrator, who has returned home for a funeral, finds himself at the door of a neighbour, the Hempstocks, and ushered out into the back garden where he sits by the pond and remembers what it was like to be a seven year old. A quiet bookish child it takes a rather dark turn of events (the suicide of one of the lodgers his parents take in when their own fortunes take a turn for the worst) to introduce him to a trio of women, the aforementioned Hempstocks, who live down the lane, an 11 year old called Lottie and, one would assume, her mum and gran. From the get-go, however, we can see that these women are not quite what they seem, with an acute awareness of what went through the suicide’s mind in the last moments of his life. The suicide draws the attention of a thing from another place (the Hempstocks having travelled to our side of things from somewhere else, across the pond that is actually an ocean – and Gaiman is always careful to avoid making a vague otherworld abstraction into something that might alienate a reader who wasn’t use to this kind of thing) and an attempt to get the thing (which is a sort of demonic bit of canvass) to curtail its activity leads to… well, a worm that becomes a woman who attempts to make our narrator’s life about as miserable as a life can be.
It’s actually best to go into The Ocean at the End of the Lane relatively unawares because the ride is very definitely enhanced by not knowing what is around the corner. In point of fact, the best thing about the novel is the way in which Gaiman ratchets up the tension, giving the reader a real sense of I did not see that coming only for the next twist to have the reader gasping and saying and I didn’t see that coming either. Despite the fantastical overtones (which some more literary readers may have to just agree to accommodate), there is a sadness at the heart of the book (Mike White could well play our narrator as a grown up if he can master an English accent), a middle aged ennui familiar to readers of, say, Graham Swift, and also a terrific playfulness (the way in which our narrator progresses into forgetfulness put me in mind of Ian McEwan, particularly Atonement). A number of reviewers have already commented that the book could easily be read by a young adult and there is some truth to this remark (but equally, Gaiman’s novel for children, Coraline, is terrifying enough to be enjoyed by an adult who doesn’t mind losing sleep).
Is it the best thing Gaiman has done? It’s certainly up there. I devoured the book in a single sitting, utterly oblivious to the world around me (I was on a flight, the duration of which seemed perfectly aligned to the page count) and I emerged, shaking my head, blinking the sleep dust from my eyes, in wonder. Well done old man, I said to myself. Well done.
Any Cop?: Deserving of both excellent reviews and healthy sales, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a blast, and it could well blast the bloody doors open on Gaiman as a writer to be enjoyed by everyone (not just us sad comic geeks).