For all his industrious celebrity, Neil Gaiman has always been a pretty shrewd choreographer of mythologies. From the multiple myth systems incorporated into the Sandman series through the unpacking of American iconography in American Gods to the exploration of Afro-Caribbean myths in Anansi Boys (which even pays brief homage to another tale-telling mythographer, Zora Neale Hurston), Gaiman has shown that he knows where stories come from and where to go to get them. But for the most part, except for a handful of short stories, Gaiman the observer has always remained somewhat distant and sometimes a little arch; a skilled tale-teller who characteristically writes from the outside in – until now. The most remarkable thing about his short new novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and what makes it possibly his best, is that for the first time at novel length, he’s writing from the inside out. If his observations on American culture in American Gods sometimes sound like a visitor discovering the flyover states, and his humor in Anansi Boys often derives from bringing a screwball Wodehouse sensibility to old trickster tales, Ocean takes us back, really, to no one but Gaiman himself. Its terrors and longings are felt terrors and longings, and it’s in this sense his most personal novel to date.
The unnamed narrator, a middle-aged artist (‘‘I make art’’ is all he tells us), has returned to his native Sussex for a family funeral, and finds himself driving back to his childhood homestead, long since demolished and replaced by a house that itself had been sold decades earlier. What does remain is the neighboring Hempstock farm, which he had first visited at the age of seven, when it was home to the then 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, her mother, and her grandmother. Remarkably, an old woman still lives there – apparently Lettie’s mother – who claims to remember him, even though his own memories are fragmentary: Lettie had at some point moved away to Australia, and had oddly referred to the duck pond at the back of the house as her ‘‘ocean.’’ He wanders out to the small pond, and immediately memories of what happened to him when he was seven come flooding back, setting up the main action of the novel and cleverly finessing the one central narrative concession Gaiman asks of the reader – namely, that the narrator is recounting events he doesn’t actually quite remember.
Those events begin sadly with the boy’s seventh birthday party, to which no one comes, and with the death of a favorite kitten, run over by a boarder taken in to supplement the family income. When the boarder steals his father’s car and uses it to commit suicide over gambling losses, the lonely and bookish boy is more concerned about the fate of his favorite comic book, which was in the back seat. During the police investigation, Lettie invites him to her nearby house, where he meets her strange family, all of whom seem to have a preternatural kind of second sight. Odd things begin to happen, all of them, like the boarder’s suicide, seeming to have to do with money: an old sixpence coin is found inside a dead fish from Lettie’s pond, the boy wins a small prize in the Premium Bonds (a kind of lottery), he himself coughs up a silver shilling, someone throws coins at his sister and her friends. Lettie seems to recognize what’s going on, and lets him accompany her as she confronts some fairly nightmarish supernatural forces, but during the confrontation he sustains a very foreboding puncture wound on his foot. The real confrontation with dark powers is yet to come: a mysterious new housekeeper named Ursula Monkton arrives, quickly winning over the entire family, except for the boy, who is terrified of her. And Ursula is a piece of work, a relative of the Other Mother from Coraline, but far less cartoonish and more invasive. The terrors she precipitates are among the most viscerally realized in all Gaiman’s work, and one evidence of this is that – without revealing too many details – the most disturbing scene in the novel involves the boy’s father rather than any supernatural monster.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane features an unapologetically noble and heroic character in Lettie Hempstock, but like some of Gaiman’s other heroic characters – Silas in The Graveyard Book comes to mind – the background of her family implies a vast, millennia-long struggle involving the ‘‘Old Country’’ and ancient enemies; the grandmother even says she remembers when the moon was made. In this sense, the small pond which may be an ocean becomes an image of the novel itself – a small, almost classically unified tale which implies a far larger one. That in itself isn’t an unusual Gaiman technique, but what is unusual is the degree to which we are given to understand how these events and figures formed the boy who became the artist, who is warned at one point, ‘‘You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow.’’ It’s that calling which this novel is really about, and while it’s one of the oddest portraits of the artist you’ll see for quite some time, it’s also one of the most powerful and compelling, as deeply felt and deeply honest as anything Gaiman has written.