If you like Neil Gaiman’s books, chances are you enjoy his voice as much as anything he might choose to say with it. Whether he describes forgotten gods down on their luck or a transcendentally brilliant plan to swap a dad for goldfish, the voice remains a familiar and kindly sort of trickster, smiling its affectionate smile, intending to lead you down to a very dark place and abandon you there. If you know that already and keep coming back, then you’ll want to know this more than anything else: Will you recognize Gaiman’s voice in “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”? Will it comfort you even as the story strips away all possible comfort?
Yes. This is his voice, and it might be more clearly articulated here than in any other book.
If you take a step back from the plot and squint a bit, the novel is about children who cross boundaries between worlds and confront monsters, grownups and blends between the two; familiar ground for Gaiman, but structural similarities to “Coraline” or “Mirrormask” are the least important thing you need to know.
Move closer and you’ll notice folkloric grace notes: An unnamed narrator learns the importance of naming, familiar nursery rhymes are reconsidered and made mythic. Magic comes slowly into the story, and it arrives as easily as breathing. When a perfectly sensible character says that she remembers when the moon was made, you will believe her. You won’t actually have a choice.
This is important, but not unexpected. We’re in a Gaiman story. The rules are familiar and easy enough to intuit. But look closer. Take one more step.
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is heralded as Gaiman’s first novel for adults in eight years. It isn’t. Not exactly. It is narrated by an adult, and it is addressed to adult readers, but the book is actually for the children those adults used to be. This is what makes it remarkable. The narrator’s 7-year-old self is far more vulnerable and dependent than the adventurous kid protagonists we usually see, and experiencing his childhood adventure from an adult perspective is wrenchingly, gorgeously elegiac.
Think about eulogies for a moment. They’re impossible things, meant to recapture something while simultaneously acknowledging the irrevocable loss of that same thing. Eulogies try to bring somebody back so we can remember them properly, even while communicating the fact that they aren’t ever coming back. Gaiman accomplishes this in “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”; he summons up childhood magic and adventure while acknowledging their irrevocable loss, and he stitches the elegiac contradictions together so tightly that you won’t see the seams.
William Alexander won the National Book Award for his debut novel, “Goblin Secrets,” and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. He lives in Minneapolis.