I'm late to the party on this one, I know. In actual fact, I had no intention of reading this, because although I am aware that Gaiman is an Awesome Person with all the right ideas about humanity and reading, etc., and therefore Beloved of All the Internet, I've never enjoyed his books as much as I thought I would. Stardust was intensely disappointing, Neverwhere decidedly meh, and although I love Good Omens with all my heart and soul Terry Pratchett wrote half of it and so it doesn't really count (in my brain, at least). Anyway, it was my dad who bought or otherwise acquired a copy (actually, now I come to think of it, I seem to remember him saying that someone in a pub gave him it, which seems odd, but aligns nicely with the oddness of this book so I'll go with it) and passed it to me to read.
All of which is an illustration of the workings of Providence, because, Stormhold-related reservations aside, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is really a rather lovely thing.
Our narrator, a seven-year-old who, in the Grand Tradition of these things, goes unnamed (and is thus clearly a sort of stand-in for Young Gaiman; the author freely admits this at the back of my copy), meets, through a strange concatenation of extraordinary events, an old, old family of women, the Hempstocks, who have a pond in their back garden which is actually an ocean and whose oldest resident claims to remember when the moon was made. Any further plot elaboration ventures into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that the ensuing story is, though in many ways quietly unsensational (oh, apart from the horrid worm thing. ugh), deeply, properly satisfying on a very basic level: this is how magic is supposed to work. This is How Things Are. The fantasy in this book is, I think, illustrative of how many of us secretly believe the world actually works: a fantasy tied into the inherent strangeness of things, the idea that the cosmos is vaster than we are, that there are powers on the earth more ancient than we are, that what seems ordinary can become strange in the blink of an eyelid or the cast of a glance.
It's sort of a fairy tale, in other words. But not one you'd want to give to children; not when the narrator's ickle wickle kitty dies literally a page after no-one comes to his birthday party (WHAT). Not when adults are so dangerously threatening to their own children (there are definite overtones of Coraline here). Not when daddy is doing something naughty with the babysitter. It's dark in here. Childhood is scary. This, as Gaiman tells us, is a story of childhood for adults who remember it; not a story of childhood for those going through it.
That's not to say it's depressing, or anything, or fundamentally pessimistic about the modern condition of today's youth. There are ways through the woods, so to speak, and one of them is books; I loved the way Young Gaiman related to the stories he read, how he used them for comfort and escape and for knowledge he could use in the world, and the bit where he recites the Mouse's Tail from Alice in Wonderland was so perfect. I related to all this so much; Gaiman just gets literature, for me at least. There are also loads of cats in Ocean, which are adorable. I love cats almost as much as I love books.
I mean, I do not think The Ocean at the End of the Lane is going to change my life in any fundamental way. It's not going on my favourites list just yet. But it was a good, quick read, a sweet read (despite the darkness) with some really interesting magical world-building and some insightful things to say about memory and adulthood. It just goes to show: never write off an author completely.