Warning: If you have not read “The Ocean At The End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman, don’t read this review if you don’t want spoilers!
Happy First Day of August! I figured I’d move this book review to today instead of yesterday (July 31st), which would have been a Tuesday. I hope you all had a wonderful July and I wish you all a fantastic August!
I’m back with another book review, and this time it’s “The Ocean At The End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman! I’ve reviewed several of his books before, such as “American Gods,” “Neverwhere” and “Norse Mythology,” so I’m glad to pick up another one! Here’s a summary so we know what it’s about:
“Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.”
Basically the plot is this: An old man (our unnamed main protagonist) comes back to the place where he grew up, and ends up recalling his time as a young lad and the time spent with Lettie in childhood. Most of the book takes place in this gigantic flashback past, with the last two chapters coming back to the present day. The plot of the whole past timeline, in the book, is our protagonist and Lettie meeting, getting to know each other, and then end up destroying his evil nanny which results in Lettie sacrificing her life for him because there are supernatural forces involved. This seems like a relatively simple plot, and I’ve noted this before in reading “American Gods,” but usually this means that there is time for character development, and time for the characters themselves to drive the book’s plot rather than the plot driving the characters.
Bad news? Character development was pretty flat in this book. Our protagonist doesn’t do a whole lot other than a constantly-running-away and running-for-help, with Lettie doing most of the work that actually vanquishes the evil nanny I mentioned earlier. We sympathize with our protagonist in terms of him having to deal with this horrible nanny (whose name is Ursula, which makes me think of the evil sea witch from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”) and his abusive father. However, I didn’t find anything too notable about him other than constantly being the dude in distress, for lack of better words.
Ursula is an obvious antagonist, and she is very, very slimy. She’s also very flat, and there’s nothing about her that is sympathetic or makes her too interesting, other than how she words her death threats, and so adds nothing to the plotline other than being a threat to Lettie and the protagonist. The father is not seen at sympathetically, except for one section late in the book where the protagonist stands up to his abusive tactics and reacts in shock, only for him to ever really not appear again. It’s mentioned in the epilogue that his relationship with the main character got better years down the road, but the way that the abuse of the protagonist is glossed over felt very full of holes and was an unsatisfying plotline to read.
Good news: The characters’ actions DID drive the story, regardless of lacking character development. If it wasn’t for Lettie interfering when Ursula tried to basically kill and/or hunt down our protagonist partway through the book, he’d probably be dead. Same goes for if the protagonist hadn’t tried to break out of his house to get away from his father, who abuses him, he probably might not have run into anyone to get help from.
What I think really hurt the plotline’s pacing overall, however, was the fact that it got bogged in details of both the childhood and the description of literally anything and everything possible. There is description of every tiny thing the main protagonist and everyone else does, and that immensely slow down the plot. I almost was tempted to skim through the first half of the book, simply because there was so much detail to get through. The fantasy worldbuilding built into this just also didn’t make a lot of sense for me, and felt random when it first appeared in the book, despite all explanations given to the protagonist by Lettie and the other characters involved in that fantasy worldbuilding aspect.