I had just finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane earlier today as I got off the train coming home from work. A couple minutes later I passed by the Music Box Theater and saw that Neil Gaiman was doing a reading a book signing, right there at that very moment. It was sold out so I couldn’t go in, but it’s just as well, as my reaction when I finished was, “that’s it?!” For his first general novel in over eight years since Anansi Boys (2008), I definitely expected more. At 192 pages, it’s slight even next to The Graveyard Book at 320 pages, which was marketed for children. But my disappointment wasn’t that I wished it didn’t end so soon. It’s that I wanted it to end even sooner.
One of the things I love about Gaiman’s books is his skill at building fascinating worlds. They may be dark and often terrifying, but they leave you thinking and even dreaming about them long after reading the books, particularly with Neverwhere (1996). While The Ocean does present a potentially interesting world, it falls short, mainly because it’s largely seen through the eyes of a seven year-old boy. Now if this were one of his fantastical fairy tales or children’s books, it might be appropriate. But instead it’s a 50+ year-old man remembering surreal events that happened over the course of just a few days, and deals with some horrifying stuff, from child abuse and infidelity to nightmarish body horrors of monsters burrowing into his body, attempts to extract it and being subsequently terrorized. These feel like they ring true with my murky memories of my own old childhood nightmares. However, given that it’s a seven year-old boy, he is completely and utterly helpless, at the mercy of abusive or non-understanding adults, monsters, and dependent on the help of a trio of multi-generational, immortal women neighbors. So the main character really has no control over his surroundings or fate, and thus there is no sense of adventure, only a feeling of impotent horror of watching events unfold, just like a nightmare.
The most intriguing characters remain mostly mysterious and undeveloped. And there’s little reason to consider the boy at all interesting or exceptional, save for one act of bravery. I wish I could say it provides fascinating insights on the nature of memory and how it changes in order to protect your psyche from real horrors in childhood, but I really don’t think it’s all that profound. While I still enjoy Gaiman’s writing and ideas, the unpleasant parts of this one outweighed any redeeming qualities. Gaiman is reportedly working on a sequel to American Gods (2001). Here’s hoping he can revive his epic sense of both wonder and adventure.