The epilogue, specifically the final page, is what saved The Ocean at the End of the Lane for me and landed a strong three-star rating. For much of the book I worried, because it faltered and hung around two stars despite the beautiful writing and Gaiman's name on the cover.(Note, as this seems to be an issue I'm seeing in other reviews: I refuse to grant higher ratings just because its a certain popular author whom I generally love. If you think I've rated this too low, read my review of Rowling's The Casual Vacancy and you'll realize Gaiman got off lightly here.)
First, the writing is
beautiful. Gaiman's way with words is on full display here, weaving yearning with surreal detachment, moving the story forward in appropriate waves and swells. Dreamlike, overall. (And, on a shallow note, the book's cover is also gorgeous.)
The story is good, well plotted and well paced, creative with the darker twists and turns one expects from a Gaiman work. In some places it feels stretched a little thin, an unfortunate side effect of this having started life as a short story and expanded beyond those bounds, but overall the tale itself is excellent. There are flavors of The Graveyard Book and Coraline here, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is infused with a dark nostalgia that pushes it into the adult realm, which is in many ways a good thing. There's a natural progression there that I like.
Unfortunately, there's none of the engagement of those other works. There was no sense of urgency as I read, nothing pushing me to turn the page, to read just one more chapter, to sneak in as many glimpses as possible when I should've been working. Once upon a time when I worked as a temp in various offices, I hid out in the bathroom with whatever book I was reading in order to finish the chapter I'd started during my lunch break. With The Ocean at the End of the Lane, however, I could put it down and walk away without a twinge of regret or that overwhelming OhmyGodIhavetofinishthisnow
feeling. No trouble waiting until the end of the work day to pick it back up again. When I realized this was happening, that I didn't even mind that I couldn't read any more for a few more hours, I knew the book was floundering.
Earlier I wrote that there's a quality of yearning and surreal detachment to the writing, something I suspect Gaiman intended. The effect, however, is an overall detachment from the story itself; another reviewer and friend of mine (hi, Annie!) said it was emotionally flat. And especially in chapters where the tension should have been high and my heart rate even higher, there was only mildly increased interest. When I finished the book, I understood that the tone was appropriate for the story, but realizations at the end are too late, merely hindsight.
But holy God, the end! Again: the epilogue saved this from being a complete bust for me. The gradual shift from the fantasy (that wasn't a fantasy at all) to the reality (that's only half real), the masterful way Gaiman eased the character from the child back to the adult...I loved it. So subtle one almost doesn't notice until the final page, brilliantly done. Beautiful and bittersweet, one of those endings that I'll think about for a long time to come.
(Random note: the cleaners in this story made me think of the reapers from the Doctor Who episode "Father's Day." Different entities altogether, and I'm definitely not
implying anything untoward here. I just found it amusing, considering Gaiman's connection with the show. And I like the cleaners better; they're more unsettling, have a better back story, and are far less ridiculous.)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a good book, a good read. It's not the best of Gaiman's work, but it's also different in significant ways from a lot of his other offerings, which will affect anyone going in expecting the same old thing with just a different name. Writers should grow and change over time, despite expectations to the contrary. Would I recommend this book? Probably, although on its own merits, not as an introduction to the awesome that is Neil Gaiman. American Gods, Stardust, and Neverwhere are far better choices for that cause. But this? This is a nice addition to the canon.
Has this lowered Gaiman in my esteem? Absolutely not. I'm still a total fangirl, and you can bet money that when his next book is announced, I'll have that pre-ordered weeks in advance, too.