I don't do religion. Begging favors from an imaginary, father figure on a cloud isn't my style. To quote Serenity's Captain Malcolm Reynolds, "That's a long wait for a train don't come."
Instead, I've got my real life gods, creative people who consistently inspire me, artists, who even at their worst, are better than the rest.
Neil Gaiman is one of those creative deities. The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn't my favorite Gaiman, but it delivers what I expected, a journey into a magical world that lies just underneath our own.
A middle-age man returns to the quiet little English village where he spent the early days of his childhood. He's there for a funeral, but tired of the usual funeral small talk, wanders off and find himself at the house at the end of the lane. There, he meets the old woman who lives in there, and begins to fall into a lost memory.
And thus begins the meat of the story, a memory of a time, forty years before, when the man was just seven. His family, once well-off, have fallen on hard times, and as a consequence, sometimes take on boarders to make some extra money. When one of their boarders commits suicide, his death opens the doorway to something that shouldn't be in our world.
The boy meanwhile, has made a new friend. Since he's bookish and introverted, his only friend perhaps. Lettie Hempstock lives in the house at the end of the lane along with her mother and grandmother. Though only eleven, she's brave and unflappable, and he quickly realizes that she, along with her mother and grandmother, are something extraordinary. Which is fortunate, because it will take someone extraordinary to put the peculiar and somewhat malevolent force that has been unleashed back in its place in the universe. Things grow more complicated when that thing quite literally moves into the boy's home, taking his already uncomfortable relationship with his father and making it far worse.
I read one review that suggested that this story might work better for older readers, middle-age readers. Given my fondness for YA, and other less-than-mature habits, I'd argue that maturity isn't why I connected with the story. Instead, it seems that the narrative will resonate with those of us who know that the notion of childhood being "the best of times" is a fallacy. At least a fallacy for some of us.
Basically, I think any kid who grew up bookish and isolated will understand the protagonist. The power of the story for me is that it captured the constant sense of powerlessness--particular when confronting adults who just don't understand and who, nonetheless, must be obeyed--that characterized childhood. And the corresponding alienation.
The fantasy here isn't just the cosmic elsewhere that Lettie and her family navigate through so fluidly, but also the wish that all lonely children have for "that" friend, a special buddy who not only understands them, but who comes to the rescue when the world (in this case, parents) turns against them. Someone to turn the tide against the helplessness.
Interestingly, this does seem like the kind of book that middle-age authors tend to write, that book where they stop trying to hide that fact that much of the protagonist is drawn from themselves. Gaiman seems to have written The Ocean at the End of the Lane with his heart pretty much on his sleeve. He acknowledges in the author note at the end that there is a certain autobiographical element to the story. That would be my one criticism of the story and why it's not a keeper. There's just too much of the author in the narration, which imparts a kind of neediness on the tone.
OTOH, this...which I suspect is very much how Gaiman views the creative life, was so spot on, it made me ache.
"...work (doing find, thank you, I would say, never knowing how to talk about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it. I make art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all.)"
The nostalgia in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is more of a melancholy flavor, which suits me fine, because that's how, on those odds times when I let any long lost memories sneak into my consciousness, is how I see childhood as well. The story resonated with me because I don't miss childhood.