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.

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

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 Newstatesman.com