Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Headline 2013)
Neil Gaiman is a rock star among writers. He’s a brilliant user of social media, a generous participant in readings and signings, a glamorously nerdy co-star with his wife Amanda Palmer (whose ‘Vegemite (the Black Death)‘ he has described as the only love song she’s written for him). He reads with a sinister intonation that reminds one of Hammer horror movies. He has written brilliant comic books, most notably the Sandman epic, and his children’s books (Coraline, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Walls, The Graveyard Book) tend to become instant classics. He has written screenplays for a handful of movies and for episodes of Doctor Who. The wonderfully creepy Coraline has been made into a successfully creepy animated movie, and his novel for grown-ups American Gods is on its way to becoming a TV series.
Gaiman fandom is such a phenomenon that shortly after the publication of The Ocean at the End of the Lane a lane in his native Portsmouth had its name changed to ‘The Ocean at the End of the’ Lane. The Internet has a photo of Neil (as he’s known to his fans) unveiling the sign, looking chuffed
On top of all that, the book is excellent. It’s a fantasy tale of a small boy who tangles with a vast amorphous monster and stops it from destroying the universe, with the help of three mysterious women who live in the house at the end of the lane, right next to the pond that the youngest of them – actually an eleven year old girl rather than a woman, though she has been around for millennia – insists is really an ocean. There’s a strong sense, as in many of his books, of childhood as a time of huge moral and other challenges, when the stakes are very high and the possibilities for wonder are endless. The protagonist is six years old but it’s not a children’s book: all but the most committed young readers are likely to be deterred by the elliptical writing in the first few pages, in which the narrator, having just attended his father’s funeral, is drawn by a vague nostalgic impulse to drive down the lane near his childhood home. It looks to me like an excellent way out of the dilemma faced by people who write books for adults as well as children: how to signal clearly enough to prospective readers whether they are going to be happy in a given book.