In June I was lucky enough to attend an evening with Neil to commemorate the release of his new "adult" novel. They always say, "never judge a book by its cover", but I'm afraid that is exactly what I did. Clocking in at under 200 pages, I was underwhelmed by the sight of this book of rough-edged paper.
In an age of George Martins' and Stephen Kings where each tombe must either equal or exceed the page number of the previous book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (OEL) is , in comparison, puny. But what OEL lacks in verbiage it makes up for with expert storytelling from a master at the height of his ability.
OEL tells the tale of a man who reminisces about a period in his childhood that begins with an unexpected death and ends with harrowing showdown between supernatural forces. Told from the viewpoint of a seven year old boy, OEL is peppered with observations and anecdotes about how the world is viewed from that smaller perspective. The world at once feels smaller with the safety and comfort of adults and yet at the same time larger when that safety net is yanked away to reveal that we are all, adult and child alike, flotsam floating on an immense sea.
I was reluctant to begin this adventure for fear that the author's immersion in children's books over the past few years had dulled his ability to write for an audience looking for something with a harder edge. Especially given that the narrator is a seven year old boy. What a relief it was to read a passage of a terrible incident that you and I can see for what it is and yet have the narrator describe what is before him with youthful ignorance.
The story uses many tropes that Neil is comfortable with; the Hempsteads, the Varmints, and even the titular ocean all echoe ideas that have appeared in others of his works. But that does not make them any less engaging. The mythology that Neil has has revealed throughout his career is as interesting as ever and the questions that arise from the most vague answers are intriguing and ask the reader to ponder their implications.
Without a doubt OEL is an adult novel well worth exploring. Much like the narrator reflecting on his childhood, I too reflected on mine after reading this and the ephemeral qualities of it that have given way to harder reality. While we may never know what lies beyond the horizon of that ocean at the end of the lane, we can take comfort in that it laps at our shores and from time to time reminds us that the world, and indeed memory, is greater than the sum of its parts.