“I’m going to tell you something important,” an 11-year-old named Lettie Hempstock tells the unnamed 7-year-old protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside… Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups.”
Lettie is right in some senses, as any adult who still struggles with responsibility, confidence, or certainty can attest. But she isn’t entirely right with respect to her own story. One of the most remarkable things about The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, the latest adult fantasy novel from the author of American Gods, the Sandman comics series, and much more, is the way it captures the feeling of childhood, which is separate from the feeling of whimsical, uncertain, or otherwise childish adulthood. The protagonist lives in a state of accepting wonder, seeing the world around him as fantastic and frightening, yet essentially normal, even when he’s pulling a spectral invader out of his own body, or facing a flapping ghost-creature with a human face. His life experience is limited enough that he doesn’t have an instinct to doubt or deny fantastical occurrences, like meeting Lettie, a girl with casual access to immense knowledge and powers. When she says she’s 11 years old, he just asks how long she’s been 11, giving the impression that he assumes it’s been centuries. He only gets a sly smile in return, but later, when she references something she did in Oliver Cromwell’s time, it’s apparent that he’s gotten at a deeper truth about her because he doesn’t know to limit himself to evident, rational explanations.
None of Lettie’s wisdom, history, or magic seems odd to him. Nor do the series of events kicked off when a lodger at his parents’ home steals their car and uses it to stage his suicide, inadvertently waking a phantasmal horror that starts trying to help people, with disastrous results. Eventually, the boy makes a small mistake that allows full access to his world, and Lettie and her mother and grandmother—yet another ancient triad of women representing the Fates, a running theme throughout Gaiman’s Sandman—have to repel the evil force, in part by standing by as a worse one takes its place.
One of the novel’s greatest assets is the narrator’s wide-eyed frankness, which provides a dry humor and a calm, analytical tone that grounds the wildest events. It also lets Gaiman sweep through the book’s action breathlessly, without pause for long explanations or justifications. The boy’s point of view is a distinctive Gaiman touch, familiar from the way he handled people caught within dreams in Sandman or in the fairy-tale madness of Stardust, but also hauntingly familiar from real-life childhood. (Gaiman’s literary fan base may particularly relate to the way, when pressed beyond his emotional capacity, the boy retreats into a comforting book.) At the same time, the boy’s passive credulity can be frustrating; he’s so accepting that he unquestioningly permits Lettie and her family to steer him through the story, and he serves more as a witness to the book’s supernatural crisis than as a participant. That’s consistent enough with the helpless feeling of being a child, subject to incomprehensible adult whims and decisions made at an alien remove. But the narrator’s lack of curiosity or agency, his inability to take a useful hand in his own fate or investigate the book’s many vast mysteries, can be exasperating.
The book’s brevity doesn’t allow for much exploration, either. At its most frustrating point, a significant character disappears from the narrative for briefly explained reasons, just long enough to let a situation become crucial. Then she reappears to save the day, with even less explanation. It’s no surprise when the world seems arbitrary and coincidence-driven to the protagonist, but it occasionally becomes equally arbitrary for readers as well. It’s consistent with the boy’s undiscerning point of view, but not always satisfying.
More satisfying throughout is the book’s emotional palette, which largely comes from that distant but recognizable childhood place. Typically for Gaiman’s work, it is deeply colorful and imaginative, taking place in a world of unusual creatures and situations, described compellingly and convincingly in a way that makes them feel soundly logical. It solidly captures that old echo of memory, the feeling of being a kid again, in a world of infinite possibility. In the mental space the book inhabits, it’s no wonder the narrator never names himself: He has no sense of discrete identity, no sense of separation from the world around him. In the brief bookends that open and close Ocean, he’s an adult looking back with astonishment on these events of his childhood, and he’s another person entirely, defined by self-awareness and self-doubt—another indication that Lettie is at least a little wrong, and that grown-ups and children aren’t entirely alike inside. But that disconnect gives Ocean its distinction.