Reading a new Neil Gaiman novel is always such a delight. The form and tone of his works vary widely from one offering to the next, yet he has certain interests that reappear across disparate mediums and genres. A Gaiman novel isn't really defined by any one thing, but a cloud of ideas that he draws freely upon: classical mythology, growing up, memory, dreams.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an interesting entry. It feels like it sits about halfway between his young-adult books, like Coraline or Stardust, and his more adult entries. Structurally it has the feel of a YA fantasy, but it crosses over into some fairly discomforting subject matter, and even some threads of horror that exceed the disquiet encountered in Coraline.
The book uses an interesting framing device. The narrator is a middle-aged man returning to his childhood town for a funeral. He visits an old friend's house, and begins reminiscing and remembering the events that occurred thirty-ish years earlier. I had initially thought that this would just be a brief section that provided necessary background before starting the main plot, and was a little surprised (but not displeased!) when it kept going, and going, and eventually I realized that the flashback was the story.
Like Coraline, this book features a young child and does (I think) a really good job of getting into his head, showing the kinds of things he pays attention to, the way he associates ideas to one another, and how he views the adult world. Some of this is particularly poignant, like an early scene describing a birthday party to which no other child came. That scenario seems extraordinarily sad, yet he chooses to focus on the brighter aspects: the kind love of his mother, the tiny comfort of disappearing into a book after disappointment.
If you have read anything Neil Gaiman has written, odds are excellent that you've encountered the Three Fates. I don't think he ever calls them that, though he will occasionally mention the Maiden, Mother and Crone. They show up yet again here, and actually end up being arguably the most important characters in the book, in contrast with their more normal role as purveyors of cryptic prophecies. I really liked what he does with their personalities: they're still a bit mysterious, but they're simultaneously down-to-earth and friendly (albeit odd). They have deliberately limited their powers, and so they don't have the immediate omniscience apparent in their other appearances. The result is fractured and interesting, where they can know enough to seem strange, but not so much to avoid causing problems.
The main plot of the book felt really abstract, which was weird and cool. I'm more used to plots like those in Murakami books, where there's a readily identifiable threat, but with a disquieting sense that there's something larger and more unknowable behind that threat. Here, the actual threat is very supernatural and obscure, yet it impinges in some oddly concrete ways on the boy's physical life. The prose varies between some very purple sections that convey how the boy can't fully comprehend his opponent, and some nasty, cringe-inducing passages that go into great detail on physical discomforts.
The book's intended audience doesn't fully reveal itself until perhaps a third of the way in: early on it seems like this could be yet another companion to Gaiman's younger books, but despite the setting of childhood, it gradually starts exploring some fairly dark and adult territory. Again, I liked the way Gaiman set this up. With the first-person adult providing narration through the eyes of his young self, we can simultaneously understand the actual actions, as well as his confusion at the time about their significance. As usual, Gaiman does a terrific job at reminding us of just what it felt like to be a kid, and specifically how our memories change over time to protect against the truth of unpleasant things.
I think I'm going to have to stop hoping for another American Gods; that's still my favorite Gaiman novel, but he doesn't seem interested in revisiting that territory. Still, there's a ton to enjoy from the books he's written since then, and this book stands up very well among the other books he's written since then.