The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fairy tale for adults which explores children's perceptions of adults, traumatic events, and just life in general.
The protagonist of this story went through some rough patches when he was seven years old, and decades later he revisits a key place of his childhood. Sometimes, things happen, and the memories get pushed aside. You might not think about something for ages and ages, and then all it'll take is that one song, or that one photograph, and it all comes flooding back. But the memories that come back to you are altered. As we grow older, our perceptions change, as do our interpretations of various events. As we grow older, our idea of what makes sense or not changes, so do our memories. And sometimes, as we grow older, traumatic events could come back more vividly than we could ever imagine.
The best comparison I could make offhand to illustrate how I feel about Ocean is to bring up Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. In that film, also a fairy tale for adults, the main girl is going through the traumatic experience of war, and being forced to live with an enemy general. Though the film doesn't lie about what's really going on, we spend most of the time viewing the events from the girl's perspective. And hers is full of fairies and other magical creatures from all her favorite stories, vividly brought to life by her imagination.
It's the same with Ocean, I think. The boy spends a big chunk of his time reading books to escape, especially at night. His imagination is vibrant and bursting, and it wouldn't be a stretch to surmise that his escape from an awful reality was to bring fairies and magic into it. And later on, as he's sitting on a bench and narrating the story for us, it's evident that his adult thoughts are seeping through. He finds it strange that as a child, none of these fantastical events struck him as out of the ordinary, that he simply accepted it all. In the end, it becomes a question of whether one wants to remember certain things, and then how they want to remember them.
One of the finer points of this short book, and my favorite thing about it, is how it highlights that children are much more perceptive, intelligent, resourceful (and yet vulnerable) than we give them credit for. The only person in the household in the narrator's memory who ever knew something was amiss was the seven-year old boy himself. And he goes through great lengths in the narrative to emphasize the huge divide between the way adults think and act, and the way children think and act. And how helpless it feels to be a child when you know the truth, when you have conviction, only to be shot down or disbelieved. These things are explained in circles, much in the way that a typical young mind works. Returning to truths often while analyzing deviations.
I recommend The Ocean at the End of the Lane for adults (and even Young Adults) who enjoy fiction, magic, and adventure. I wouldn't call it haunting, or scary in the way that keeps you up at night, but being a short and easy read, it's hard to put down. So, maybe in that sense, you might be kept up for one night while you keep telling yourself you'll only read one more chapter.
This isn't to say that the book is humorous or objectively not-scary, though. The themes are serious and the protagonist spends most of the narrative describing various states of danger he's put through because of a situation that was out of his control to begin with, and that he is unable to remedy by telling an adult because the adults didn't believe him. And thankfully, I can also report that this isn't necessarily a book that rags on careless adults while the one child protagonist (and the sidekick) knows what's up and saves the day. This isn't one of those stories.
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman - Hardcover
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