I was so pleased to have gotten Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane for my birthday this summer – I had been waiting for it to be published and it was the first item on my birthday wish list. I started reading it right away, and given that it is quite a short book, thought I would likely finish it in one sitting. However, it took me a month to finish reading it. At first I thought it was because it was so good (and it really is) and I was reluctant to have it over, but towards the end I realized it was because it was one of the saddest books I have ever read.
At it’s most basic level, the book is about a young boy who lives through the books he reads. When a lodger with his family commits suicide in the family’s Mini down the lane, the act has a resonance within the world that leads the boy into a dark adventure. The book is written as one would expect from a Gaiman novel – elegant and economical prose, a rich sense of atmosphere, and characters that can be understood within a few paragraphs of their introduction. The story just flows well, with a good sense of how little time actually passes during the events. Something that particularly stood out for me in the book was the detailed description of foods that the boy eats, either with distaste or relish. The description of the types of food he eats and the associations he has with them is rich, and reminded me of that scene from City of Angels where the angel admires Hemingway for his describing food so well you can taste it.
What is hard to write about, with this book, is the impressions and feelings it leaves. This thought isn’t revolutionary, I’m sure, but this book’s reflection on childhood and how adults are unable to protect their children from heartbreak and loss, and indeed are sometimes the source of that suffering, really kind of broke my heart. I always kind of assumed that the passage of time and the distance it lends grief would make things better, but it really just changes and deepens our understanding even though the immediate sting is gone. The Ocean‘s little boy, precocious and brave, revisits his past repeatedly and tries to make the sacrifices worth it – it is a good reminder for me when I start to feel a bit down about things. Magic is everywhere, and maybe your heart can grow back, little by little.