I'm finding it hard to properly review this book. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of those books that, more so than the story itself (and the characters, the events, and all of the usual stuff), what's more important here is how it makes you feel. For this reason, this book won't be for everybody - some people will be lured in by Neil Gaiman's beautiful melody of childhood, while others won't be. I, for one, fall into the former group, finding Gaiman's usual whimsy evoking strong feelings of nostalgia, yearning, and loss within me, and aching to be able to go back to a time when everything seemed magical and full of possibility.
I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.
The narrator, whose name we never come to learn, returns to his childhood home after a funeral. He finds himself drawn to the house at the end of the lane, where he had he met a remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, as well as her mother and grandmother, during his childhood. He goes to sit by the pond in the back, which Lettie had always claimed was an ocean, and during this time, he recounts a flood of childhood events that he had seemed to forgotten.
I was a normal child. Which is to say, I was selfish and I was not entirely convinced of the existence of things that were not me, and I was certain, rock-solid, unshakeably certain, that I was the most important thing in creation. There was nothing that was more important to me than I was.
While I enjoyed the fantastical element to the story, as it added an air of magic and whimsy to the narrator's retelling of his childhood, I found myself mostly drawn in by the narrator's thoughts and feelings. As we get older, childhood is nothing but a memory, and memories are not the least bit safe or reliable.
That's the trouble with living things. Don't last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together.
I'm not sure if this was a normal reaction for readers of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but reading this book made me feel a profound sense of loss for my own childhood. Being able to enter into the narrator's whimsical childhood was almost like being able to live vicariously in a world that I wish still existed.
A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn't I?
This book is most definitely not a "coming of age" story, and yet, I feel like I learned a lot about childhood, adulthood, life, and death. As is often the case with Neil Gaiman's books, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane he transported to another place, somewhere I really wanted to be.