The realm where fantasy's dreams and horror's nightmares intersect — I'd call it a "twilight realm" if the word hadn't forever been ruined by you-know-what — has a long history of tales of childhood nostalgia colored by the supernatural. Stephen King has written any number of these. Dan Simmons' Summer of Night comes to mind. And Ray Bradbury? — well, there you are.
It isn't surprising in the least to have another such story from modern fantasy's most popular purveyor of bedtime baroque, Neil Gaiman. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a breathtaking little epic in miniature that leaves its ultimate meanings squarely in the hands of readers to decide. Is it a cautionary tale about the seductive power of evil? A loving testimony to the bonds of friendship and the sacrifices we make for it? A valentine to childhood, and the way we patch the holes in our memory of it with moments of wonder and magic? Could it even share some DNA with American Gods, in the way that the Hempstock family all seem to be gods of one sort or another, protecting their little nook of rural England? All of this and more is given free rein in the reader's imagination by Gaiman, who asks nothing other than the sliver of time it takes to tell you his story.
The book has a curious sort of unreliable narrator, in that he narrates everything with perfect clarity, including the moments where he has forgotten everything he's just written. Is he remembering, or is he actually traveling in time, reliving his childhood memories and relating them to us in real time, before time (and other factors) steal those events away again? It's this kind of playful approach to narrative depth that gives Ocean so much of its power. I have, in the past, been one of Gaiman's more vocal critics about this mercurial power he has to make his stories seem so much better and deeper than they really are, prioritizing style and mood over story craft and substance. But after years of developing as a novelist, I think with Ocean, Gaiman has matched his vision and voice to just the right kind of story. This is a deceptively simple tale, unless you choose to look deeper.
Note the delicacy in Gaiman's writing right from the very first paragraphs, as we learn, without having to be told explicitly, that the narrator has not only attended a funeral but that it was an emotionally exhausting one. He flees this moment of adult despair into the comfort of his past, where he encounters memories long buried. They may not even be real ones, but they're ones we believe. He recalls his sister and his parents, a home that may not have been especially close, but was home, where his best friends were his favorite books, as they are for so many introverted and creative children. He recalls the Hempstocks, the family at the end of the lane, whose farmhouse had a small pond out back, a pond that their daughter Lettie always insisted was an ocean. And he recalls the time everything went, briefly, very very wrong, after a tenant his financially strapped parents had taken in committed suicide, and his death ushered something into our world that doesn't belong.
I think this story rates with Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Gaiman is so in command of his storytelling skill here that he doesn't need to work to find the tale. It just forms. He has written several stories for young readers by now, but I find this one the most satisfying to date, because it is honest in conveying the sad truth that combating evil almost always requires sacrifice. (It's this that I think makes Ocean so much better than, say, Coraline.) And you don't necessarily get to live happily ever after. You may live, but the "happily ever after" part is up to you.
The concept of a clan of godlike beings in the form of a gentle family of farm women, living in a home where the cooking is always mouth-watering, and bedrooms are lit by candles and there's always a wise cat purring on a windowsill, is calculated to be delightful to those of us who think childhood still ought to be idealized. When they stand in the path of the dark forces that have come to invade our narrator's life, the Hempstock women do it with an authority that is essentially maternal. Some fantasies are given such hard and detailed work in their construction — I'm thinking of Martin's Westeros or Erikson's Malazan here — that they ask to be studied and analyzed to obsessive degrees. But Gaiman's worlds are simply meant to be experienced, and this one in particular draws its value from just how fleeting the experience is. As the Hempstocks gently buff over our narrator's memory until all he can recall clearly is the duck pond, what we take away is that a child's experience of the world, even in its darkest moments, can be rescued by wonder. Could a duck pond possibly be an ocean? And where would it come from? Does it matter? Why sweat the details? We see a pond, and in our minds an ocean appears, and worlds open wide. That is the great joy of fantasy in our lives.