The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Morrow, 2013), by Neil Gaiman, may be a classic of its type. I just finished it, and don’t have much objective distance from it yet. It impressed me with its originality, especially in passages that described fantastic events, and in its use of a seven year old’s perspective for telling the story.
This must be an autobiographical allegory of a memoir. Comments Gaiman has made in interviews suggest as much. He’s not telling the facts of his own life, but he admits to using recollections from childhood and family life to build the narrative. Emotionally, the story seems intensely personal and important, as if it comes from the early time in Gaiman’s life when he had no sense of the enormity of the seen and unseen world around him, of the problems and difficulties he would have to face. But I shouldn’t use the book to speculate about his intentions.
The seven-year-old who narrates doesn’t understand much that happens around him. His innocence gives him a certain invulnerability to dark events, but also mark him as a potential victim, which indeed he becomes.
The premise is that beyond the seen world there is an unseen one that rarely interacts with the real one. Sometimes, rarely, the unseen world can be the source of disastrous events. One such event occurs in the novel, in the form of a governess who comes to care for the narrator and his older sister while their parents, who have suffered financial setbacks, work. When a boarder commits suicide in the family car, the boy is befriended by a somewhat older girl who lives with her family down a narrow lane. She becomes his friend, protector, and entry into another world.
Events happen all the time in and around the lives of children that they cannot understand. They have no way to apprehend the future that is coming for them. It’s all just a big unknown, and occasionally it abrupts into their lives before they’re old enough to understand.—deaths, sex, unhappiness, hardship, calamities. Parents divorce. Friends move away. The novel is full of metaphors, allegoric representations of such events.
This is the best book I’ve read in a while.