A middle-aged man returns to his home for a funeral, only to be drawn back into the long-forgotten events of his childhood, when he travelled through an ocean, visited another world and brought back something that did not want to leave.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Neil Gaiman's first novel for adults for eight years. It started off as a novella and grew larger than he first intended, though at 250 pages it's still on the short side for a novel. This is a book that touches on a number of themes, such as nostalgia, memory (and how it is mutable) and how a child's perception differs from that of an adult's. The book also ties in with some of Gaiman's other work, bringing in the Hempstock family from Stardust and The Graveyard Book. This is a novel that operates primarily as a mood piece, evoking the feeling of a childhood idyll and then darkening it with a nightmarish intrusion from another place. It's a classic trope, taking the idea of childhood as a sacrosanct time of warmth, fun and protection and then violating it with a force of darkness and evil.
That said, it's a story that Gaiman seems to shy away from exploring fully. Our unnamed protagonist has a rather capable of group of allies in the form of the Hempstock family, who know everything that's going on and have a solution for every problem that arises. It's difficult to build tension when your main character has a group of powerful magic-users on speed dial (effectively) to call upon at every turn. The book's structure is also odd: the novel is short, but it's quite a long time before the evil force arrives and it departs some time before the end of the book. It's almost like Gaiman wanted to write a moody piece about childhood but then decided he needed some sort of existential threat to be introduced and defeated because, well, it's a fantasy novel.
It's all well-written, as you'd expect, and there's some very nice moments of humour, characterisation and even genre-bending (the Hempstock occasionally evoking atomic physics and dark matter to explain magical events). But it's also a slight novel, with an odd structure and some fairly straightforward plotting. Gaiman seems to have always struggled a little with plotting in his novels, oddly as it's something he does very well in his comic and TV work, and Ocean doesn't address that issue.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (***½) is a readable, enjoyable and, ultimately, disposable book. It passes the time but does not lodge in the mind the way Sandman or Neverwhere did. So, the wait for the undisputed Gaiman masterpiece novel continues. Ocean at the End of the Lane is available now in the UK and USA.