Neil Gaiman’s latest novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a children’s story.
Not because it is too violent or scary — the story is sinister, at times savage, and very sad. But most of the danger feels safely constrained, and rounded off at the sharp corners, much like the fairy tales it echoes, where there is always a magical antidote to some evil and stories tend to end happily.
Nor is the book out of reach of a young audience, particularly. Children will read and enjoy the tale of a seven-year old and his eleven year-old friend warding off mystical forces that mean them harm. They will recognize both the pleasant and unpleasant adults, who at least start out seeming like people who would fit perfectly well into a Roald Dahl story (the children’s ones). Even still, the novel is not written for kids, and they may miss the heart of the story unless they revisit it later.
I feel the need to make this clear because Ocean is a quick and bracing read, and it would be easy to blow through it and think, “Another nice YA piece from Gaiman*.” But that would be missing the point, because Ocean is not a kid’s book. Ocean is a book about a childhood memory, and children don’t have childhood memories, much less can they know the importance of childhood memories as they ripple through years. Children don’t know what it’s like to return to a place you believed was an ocean, and see that it’s only a pond.
The memory is either the recollection of genuine supernatural events, or a series of terrors buried under the mental defenses of an imaginative young man, a reader of mythology and The Chronicles of Narnia. The story unfolds like a backyard game of make believe, where continuity and organization are less important than inventing and escaping the next scenario. A dream of coins. A worm in the foot. Carrion birds of the universe. An ocean that can be breathed. This is a storytelling approach that can be wearisome in longer pieces (try reading two Murakami novels in a row), but Gaiman has fashioned his novel to function just fine with dream-logic. There is just enough continuity to leave you uncertain if these are the true events of a child and his ancient, magical protectors, or those of a kid whose kind neighbors were a refuge from the real terrors he experienced. Both the scary monsters and the scary adults are felt, and the unbelievable events are so melded with real life trauma — a suicide, a nanny’s abuse; a father’s anger — that it could be either, or both.
About a third of the way in, the young man in the book says, “I like myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” This is a useful approach to reading Ocean, but be careful assuming this is not an adult story. Behind its fantasy and magic, this book is — like so many other celebrated and “serious” novels — about an adult looking back. Through the story about a child, he also tells us something about the man the child became. And it is because of the child’s story that the man’s life takes on greater meaning. The ultimate tragedy — that the kids just won’t get — is that the years between the memory and the present are re-told in a few short pages. No monsters, but no magic either.
* Ocean was my first (and not my last) time through one of his books, but I’m assuming it bears some similarities to his Newberry Medal winner The Graveyard Book, which the American Library Association described as “A delicious mix of murder, fantasy, humor and human longing.” Recall that this is an award “for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature” — and perhaps ponder what kind of childhoods are happening to kids these days.
– Michael Moats