When Neil Gaiman came to the Lowcountry as part of the Unchained Tour of raconteurs last fall, he shared a story from his childhood. For 10 minutes, it wasn’t the successful, adult Gaiman on the stage of the Charleston Music Hall — it was his school-aged self, a child who was just beginning to learn the considerable power that a person’s words could have on others.
As it turns out, Gaiman had been tapping into the schoolboy psyche off stage as well. His latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, follows an unnamed adult protagonist as he returns home for the funeral of one of his parents. While there, the man returns to the small pond on a neighbor’s property, a place that he hasn’t thought about in years, but that played a large role in one of the most turbulent moments of his youth. From there, the story unfolds from the point-of-view of the man’s seven-year-old self, occasionally interjected by the hindsight of adulthood.
Like in Gaiman’s past works, from the Sandman comic books to American Gods and its sequel, Anansi Boys, to Coraline, Gaiman has created a secret world that exists within our own, a world that is more complex and dangerous than we could ever understand. This time, readers discover it through the eyes of a lonely kid whose last birthday party was not well attended, a boy whose greatest pleasures are reading and sleeping next to an open window, a son who may feel alienated within his own family.
This boy’s little life is upended when things start going strange in his town. A man winds up dead, dreams become reality, and it only gets weirder, and darker, from there. Soon the boy is taken under the wing of the Hampstead family, a mother, daughter, and granddaughter who skirt an unfamiliar reality in addition to our own, and who must be much older than they seem. They feed him bread and honey and try to solve his problems, which only causes new, more dangerous problems when an unwelcome visitor arrives at the boy’s home.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quick-read novella, and it won’t take you nearly as long as it would to get through the hundreds of pages of American Gods or the Sandman comics. Once again, Gaiman has created a rich, magical universe that’s as menacing as it is alluring, whether you’re an adult or a seven-year-old child.