THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, by Neil Gaiman. William Morrow, 181 pp., $25.99.
'I thought about adults," explains the 7-year-old narrator of Neil Gaiman's new novel, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane." "I wondered if . . . they were all really children wrapped in adult bodies, like children's books hidden in the middle of dull, long adult books, the kind with no pictures or conversations."
"Ocean" is little like one of those imaginary books, though it's never dull. Thematically, it's a huge, grown-up work about transience and loss; in more literal terms, it's a less-than-200-page novel that straddles the border between fantasy and horror much like the best children's stories (it's not for kids, though). The unnamed narrator is introduced to us as an adult on his way to a funeral -- we don't know whose, although there are clues that it's his father's -- when he decides to take a brief detour down the lane where he used to live. He finds himself sitting outside his neighbor's house, remembering the most frightening episode of his childhood in Sussex.
Yes, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" is scary, usually in the way that children's stories are scary -- surreal malice pops up at the least expected moments. One of the first events our narrator remembers is the time a lodger at his childhood home stole the family car and killed himself in it. In doing so, the dead man managed to attract the attention of something from . . . elsewhere, perhaps the universe before this one, and the effects the creature had on the gray, day-to-day-world feel just as solid as the details of life in 1960s England.
The juxtapositions of the meticulously real and the unreal, the disturbing and the delightful, make reading 'Ocean' a borderline delirious journey into childhood -- not the idealized, carefree, nonexistent childhood of memory, but the all-too-real, unsettled childhood of terror followed by delight followed by hunger for a sandwich (every scrap of food is described in mouthwatering detail).
In his long career, Gaiman seems to have written a little of everything -- novels, short stories, comics, screenplays, episodes of "Doctor Who" -- and whatever the medium, he frequently returns to certain ideas, like itches he can't quite scratch. The scenery of Gaiman's own childhood provides a backdrop for several works besides this one, notably two graphic novels with Dave McKean, "Violent Cases" and "The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch," each with an inscrutable, sometimes cruel father, memories of Jewish grandparents and a home intruded upon by the very, very strange.
Neither "Cases" nor "Mr. Punch" has the aching, heartsick diction of "Ocean" ("I was a seven-year-old child," he tells us again and again) nor the willingness to examine the main character's relationship with his father so vividly. As a boy, the narrator is attacked and nearly killed by his dad, and it's one of Gaiman's carefully tuned ambiguities that we don't know whether the father is being controlled by one of the book's disturbing villainesses, or is genuinely beside himself with rage, or is being tricked by her into doing something he wants to do anyway.
There are forces for good in the book, too -- notably Lettie Hempstock, the neighbor girl who's been 11 for thousands of years at least, and there are the book's cats, who have wandered in and out of Gaiman's writing for decades, comforting the afflicted and staring people down like they own the place.
"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" fits into a small, overlooked subgenre that has had a renaissance over the past few years -- the first-person adult novel about childhood. David Mitchell's excellent "Black Swan Green" fits the bill, as do Karen Thompson Walker's "The Age of Miracles" and Julian Barnes' Man Booker Prize-winning "The Sense of an Ending."
Like Barnes, Gaiman is preoccupied with memory and reliability, and he makes a point of stopping short before he gives away exactly how, say, the duck pond in Lettie's backyard is also an ocean between this world and another, weirder world. While Gaiman sometimes works too hard to maintain the book's elegiac tone -- the occasional lapses into humor are some of its best sections -- its imperfections can't begin to take the sheen off what is one of the best and most original childhood stories I can remember reading. This is, I think, something the author has been trying to write for a long time.