I loved Gaiman’s Coraline. I’ve also read Stardust, though my reading of it predates my review-writing days and I confess that I don’t remember much of it except that I liked it. (EDIT: Remembered that I also read Neverwhere! And liked it.) And before I talk about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, let me say upfront that I have never read his acclaimed American Gods or Anansi Boys. But here is the sense I get about Gaiman’s work in general, now that I’ve read
three four of his books: he gets it. He understands the myths and archetypes that are most alluring to the lover of fantasy fiction, and it is because of this that his works always have at least an element of charm even when his talents as a writer are not fully on display.
I find this to be exactly the case with Ocean, in which our narrator tells us that he wondered, as an eleven-year-old boy, why adults never seemed to want to read about Narnia. I wondered this myself as a child and am fortunate enough to have grown up to be an adult who still loves Narnia, and who knows other adults who do as well. The young boy in OATEOTL encounters Narnia in its alternate form, which is to say that he discovers not only that there are other worlds, but that some of them exist all around him. In this case, otherworldliness visits in the form of the three Hempstock women, who live at the end of the lane, and have a small er, “pond” out back. Our narrator befriends the fourteen-year-old Lettie Hempstock, whose assistance will prove vital to him when he must protect himself and his family from the human-shaped creature named Ursula Monkton (yes, it’s a splendid name, isn’t it?).
The story is told by the narrator as an adult, who remembers these events when he visits the Hempstock farm after his father’s funeral. This frame is a natural result of the events that take place in the past, but doesn’t in the end make much sense if you think about it too hard once you’ve finished the book. This is just one way in which OATEOTL feels unresolved. It is less a novel than a dream-like sequence of half-explained events, which, while lovely and eerie in themselves, do not come together to form the multi-layered fabric a good novel should be. I could see someone arguing that this is intentional. The narrator, after all, expresses a preference for fairy stories because they are self-contained, unlike adult stories, which he finds to be needlessly opaque and inconclusive. Perhaps Gaiman intends to be ironic. But if adult stories do seem opaque at times, it’s because the good ones, at least, have so much to unpack and take with us after we turn the final page. The plot and characters of OATEOTL are less like the titular ocean and more like a pond that is pretty to look at, but ultimately not deep enough for diving right in.
Gaiman relies too much on the type of mythic figures he deploys to better effect in Coraline. In that book, Other Mother was a terrifying incarnation of the Medea archetype. Using the archetype worked because Gaiman set it against the realistic character of Coraline, who could be a stand-in for that part of the reader who remembers being ten years old. The narrator in this book has some of the combination of wistfulness and powerlessness that make him an effective foil for Ursula Monkton, but is mostly an amalgamation of parts suspended loosely in the shape of a boy. And Lettie Hempstock has only hints of mystique to render her moderately engaging. Though it was diverting for an afternoon, in many ways, OATEOTL feel like a first draft of a longer, much better book.