She smiled then. "You were Lettie's friend? From the top of the lane?"
"You gave me milk. It was warm, from the cows." And then I realized how many years had gone by, and I said, "No, you didn't do that, that must have been your mother who gave me the milk. I'm sorry." As we age, we become our parents; live long enough and we see faces repeat in time. I remembered Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie's mother, as a stout woman. This woman was stick-thin, and she looked delicate. She looked like her mother, like the woman I had known as Old Mrs. Hempstock.
Sometimes when I look in the mirror I see my father's face, not my own, and I remember the way he would smile at himself, in mirrors, before he went out. "Looking good," he'd say to his reflection, approvingly. "Looking good." (p. 6)
Nostalgia, or at least the remembrance of times past (and lost), tugs harder and harder upon our heartstrings as we age and memories pile upon memories to create layers of past recollections for us to mine when the mood strikes. There is a distorting effect, however, that frequently occurs when we look wistfully into that dark glass of remembered moments. Nostalgia certainly has powered several excellent works of fiction, even though the author takes pains to alter the recalled past to create new, vivid associations. Several of Ray Bradbury's fictions, in particular Dandelion Wine, utilize nostalgic sentiment to great effect. But sometimes one writer's nostalgia can be a reader's stumbling block. One recent example of this is Jo Walton's Among Others, whose wistful look at a bookish dreamer's stormy adolescence in the 1970s felt at times to be too insular to be appealing to readers who did not tie a love for science fiction (literature and cinema alike) so closely to their adolescences.
Neil Gaiman's latest book (and his first to be marketed to adults in eight years), The Ocean at the End of the Lane, has to tread that very fine line between something that is deeply personal and yet inclusive of likely reader reactions and a work that ends up being schmaltzy inferior piece. There certainly is some grounds for worry, as The Ocean at the End of the Lane certainly mirrors many of his works in prose style, characterization, and themes, to the point where there could be a case made for his latest novel being yet one more story in a line that resemble each other in tone and presentation. The first-person narrator here possesses a kinship with the protagonists of Neverwhere, American Gods, and Coraline in his mixture of callowness and a tendency to wander into things that are none of his business. But despite these strong similarities with aspects of Gaiman's older writings, The Ocean at the End of the Lane possesses its own charms.
Unlike the above-mentioned earlier novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels stripped-down, with its emotional core laid bare for the reader to interpret as she may. Although there are certainly fairy-tale (and nightmarish) moments, the novel's strongest and most moving moments are those that feel most autobiographical. I recall reading somewhere where a critic observed that Gaiman's fictions often revolve in some form or fashion around (absent) fathers and certainly the narrator's troubled relationship with his father would fit into this perceived thematic pattern. Told mostly in flashback from the viewpoint of a lonely, bookish seven year-old boy, moments such as the one quoted from early in the book (set in the literary "present") are amplified because the reader can see signs of the narrator growing and changing when the narrative shifts between the fictional "past" of the late 1960s and "present." These shifts are made more effective because Gaiman here eschews narrating his tale in an ornate fashion. Gone are the elaborate narrative sleight-of-hands. In its stead are short, staccato bursts of description that vividly describe the narrator's character with a minimalism that suits the tale.
This narrative minimalism serves two purposes. First, it creates a work in which the reader can not only envision a setting similar to the author's actual childhood, but it also has enough "space" within it to allow for a more "universal" reading of "yes, I can remember aspects of my own childhood being similar to this." Second, by depending heavily upon brief recollections and dialogue, the narrative moves quickly and yet somehow it possesses a languid quality that allows for the sense of things somehow happening quickly and simultaneously in a slow-moving dream. This is a difficult feat to accomplish and Gaiman for the most part does this with aplomb. This mastery of a dilating narrative that expands beyond its seeming "natural" bounds helps the story overcome a few structural weaknesses, particularly those related to the antagonists that appear late in the novel. Although frightening, there is a slight dissonance between this final conflict and the overall flow of remembrances and reappraisals of familial and quasi-romantic relationships. Part of this might be due to the relatively sketchiness of the "magical" elements compared to the more mundane but better-realized personal relationships outlined in the novel.
Yet despite this rather noticeable flaw, the story perhaps is Gaiman's strongest at the novel level. It is intimate without feeling treacly or artificial. The descriptions of past life and their implications for the literary "present" more often than not hit their marks squarely and they serve to create a narrative that feels personal, vital, and most importantly, something that possesses a universalism that should appeal to most readers. The Ocean at the End of the Lane may contain several elements in common with many of Gaiman's other fictional works, but it realizes those themes and elements more fully than his other works, making it perhaps one of his two or three strongest prose works of the past fifteen years.