The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: A half-remembered fairy tale from childhood

A book that feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman
Headline, 256pp, £16.99

Neil Gaiman made his name with The Sandman, a sprawling comic book series released over the course of seven years from 1989 to 1996, which starred Morpheus, the embodiment of dreams (and imagination and art and invention – it was a broad remit).

So wide-ranging was The Sandman, wheeling from a game of thrones in Hell in one book to a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in another, that Gaiman has been touching on its themes ever since, perhaps attempting to reach those highs again. Neverwhere (1996) is an adventure through a world parallel to our own; American Gods (2001) explores the relationship of deities to their believers and asks what happens to a god who no one remembers; Coraline (2002) warns that we might not always want what we wish for. In tone and temperament, “Gaimanesque” is well defined.

In recent years, Gaiman has shifted from genre fiction for adults towards work for children and young adults. Coraline was his first volley and The Graveyard Book, a spin on The Jungle Book, came a few years later to great acclaim. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is thus heralded as Gaiman’s return to adult fiction but it bears more of a similarity to Coraline than his other novels. Both books feature a child plunged into a world of magic, where they must adhere to sets of rules they can never quite comprehend while enduring a subversion of expectations of parental responsibility.

Coraline tells the story from a child’s perspective but in Ocean it is recounted by the protagonist some 30 years later, as he returns to his childhood home for a funeral. The story isn’t filtered through the sensibilities of a child – the narrator occasionally comments on his naivety –but the plot can adopt the sort of logic that works best with a young protagonist: the ability to take odd occurrences as perfectly natural, while asking the sort of questions that might seem mad coming from an adult. It’s a smart way for Gaiman to have his cake and eat it.

Some of the plot is drawn from traditional myths of fairies and strange places – there’s a power in true names, don’t let go of your guide, keep an eye out for the maiden, the mother and the crone – but other parts are new inventions, deftly folded into the fabric of the story so that they feel older than they are. As this process is gradually revealed, the narrative begins to feel rather more episodic than it ought to. At several points, an end appears to be close, before a new quirk in the magic is introduced and the problems begin all over again.

At the start of the novel, a gathering of not-quite-witches reveal a spell that can splice a memory out of existence. Take someone’s clothing, give it a snip here, a stitch there and you can change their past. Ocean could have been made through the same process.

Gaiman has written a book that reads like a half-remembered fairy tale from childhood. It has the easy flow of a story already heard, deeply known, and slots perfectly into the canon of British magical fiction. But it also feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams. For a book that plays so constantly with memory, perhaps that’s appropriate.

Alex Hern is a staff writer for

Out of the blue: Gaiman writes of myths and magic. Photograph: Millenium Images, UK

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

Show Hide image

I don't even believe in God – so I was surprised to find myself caring so much about The Young Pope

The Young Pope stars Jude Law as a pious yet sensuous pontiff. Even so, I didn't expect it to matter me whether or not the character believes.

In The Young Pope – made largely in Europe, sold around the world and broadcast here on Sky Atlantic (Thursdays, 9pm) – the chiselled dude in question is not even remotely a moderniser. It’s 2016 or thereabouts and his elevation has come as a surprise (is it the result of skulduggery or a miracle?) even to the cardinals who elected him. Yet contrary to the expectations raised by his relatively tight, fortysomething bum and the Cherry Coke Zero with which he begins each day, this pontiff does not believe that priests should be free to marry or nuns permitted to take Mass; liberation theology is just so much muck on the soles of his red leather slippers.

Such traditionalism might once have flagged a dirty secret – a woman on the side, perhaps, or even a man – but Pius XIII (Jude Law) stinks of cigarette smoke, not hypocrisy (his cigarettes are kept in a velvet pouch, with an ingenious ashtray that resembles a pocket watch). Oh, but he is bloodless. “My only sin is that my conscience does not accuse me of anything,” he says in the confessional, not even bothering to whisper.

What autocratic piety, and how it speaks to our strange and conservative times – the age of Isis, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi – though here it comes with a subversively ambiguous sex appeal. One minute, the Vatican’s female head of marketing is trembling excitedly at the Holy Father’s financially suicidal pronouncement that his image will not appear on any merchandise. The next, we watch as he awaits the arrival of a helicopter, his zucchetto held in place by a wide-brimmed hat so camp that it might have come straight from the wardrobe of Quentin Crisp.

When he rails at the crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square, accusing them in his first homily of having moved too far from God, it’s at once uncomfortable and thrilling. Even as you want to run away, you long to kiss his ring. What to make of all this? In liberal circles, as Tony Blair discovered, Catholicism is deemed beyond the pale. Yet here it is, disguised as an Armani ad, its internal debates played out wittily and compellingly by one fine actor after another.

My feelings about it are strong. The work of the Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), it couldn’t be more to my taste if I’d written it myself. Theatrically grand to the point of being overblown, it is also clever, witty, mysterious, provocative, surreal and occasionally silly. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful, and nothing in it is wholly expected, from the sight of Diane Keaton in a wimple (she plays Sister Mary, the nun who raised the orphan pope and has rushed to Rome to be by his side) to the singular logistics of the Apostolic Palace (beneath Pius’s desk is a green button, there to be pressed whenever he’s had enough of a visitor, at which point a novice rushes in and announces that it’s time for his “snack”). In episode two (aired 27 October), a kangaroo appears, as mesmerised by the Holy Father as any animal ever was by St Francis, and we catch sight of Keaton in her nightwear: a slogan T-shirt that pokes saucy fun at her marriage to God.

Law, putting in his best performance since he starred as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley, is magnificent: charming, cruel, unknowable, mannequin-like in his watered-silk vestments. His sheer poise! He uses it like a sacrament. To my surprise, I find that the question of whether or not Pius believes in God – impossible to tell, so far, though he is certainly having trouble hearing Him – matters to me (I’m surprised because I don’t believe in Him).

Law, however, is pretty close to being upstaged by the Italian actor Silvio Orlando, who plays Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s shifty, oleaginous and thoroughly institutionalised secretary of state. Voiello’s only confessed sin so far involves his lustful obsession with the tiny but voluptuous statue the Venus of Willendorf – but he may soon have to commit all manner of holy misdeeds if he is to save the Church from what he regards as Pius’s remorseless and ­brutal literalism. Unless, that is, its salvation should lie in such intransigence. And if Sorrentino intends to be truly subversive, this is the daring direction in which he will go. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage