Book review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the LaneI was actually slightly nervous about reading this. I follow Neil Gaiman on Twitter and am a long-time reader of his blog (and, more recently, his Tumblr) so had followed the whole process of his writing, editing, submitting and finally publishing it. And I adore Neil Gaiman’s writing, and all of the reviews I’d seen (although I only read the ones I knew to be spoiler-free) had been of the gushing, “OMG this book changed my life!!!” variety, so I was really expecting this book to be epically amazing.

And then I started to think… but what if it isn’t? What if I’ve built this book up so much in my mind that I finally get around to reading it and it’s just…meh? What then? WHAT WILL I DO WITH MY LIFE??

Fortunately, I am delighted to report that my fears were unfounded. It’s lovely. Utterly, utterly lovely. And thought-provoking, and moving, and very frightening. I don’t really want to say too much in the review as I came to it knowing nothing about the story, and I think that’s the best way to approach it. I’ll just say that it is deceptively slight: it’s not a long book, and I read it in the course of a day, but it’s grown in my mind since then. I keep thinking about it, and going over key scenes and making connections that I didn’t when I read it – so much so that I think I’m going to have to re-read it. And I almost never re-read books – at least not within the year, and certainly never within a few weeks!

One final point (non-spoilery, I promise…) This book had me in tears twice within the first 25 pages. The first was just the description of the “bad birthday party” – as a similarly bookish and lonely child as the narrator, although I never had a party that literally no one came to, that passage certainly brought back some memories. The second was this paragraph:

At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favourite!” and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older, he confessed to me that he had never liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it going to waste, and for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.”

That one paragraph, entirely unexpectedly, had me in floods. I think it was partly the sense of the uncertainty of adulthood crushing childhood beliefs, however trivial – it’s always devastating to realise that a cherish childhood memory wasn’t quite what you’d always thought it was. I think it also got to me because it reminded me of something my mum once told me, about how when she was little she believed that her own mother, my grandma, just didn’t eat – didn’t need to eat, didn’t get hungry – because every time she put food out she always said it was all for my mum and her brothers, and that they shouldn’t worry about her, she didn’t want anything. Mum said it wasn’t until she got a bit older that she’d finally realised that her mother was actually starving herself so her children could eat, because she couldn’t afford to put enough food on the table for all of them.

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