‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ captures the magical experience of childhood


I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

The first page of The Ocean at the End of the Lane lists Neil Gaiman’s previous books, which are separated into two categories, one for adults, the other for children. The books written for adults (like Stardust) have a certain childish quality, while the books for children seem a little too mature (especially Coraline). The truth is that all of Gaiman’s books are fairy tales, some longer than others, some illustrated, some containing sex scenes. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is novella-length with no illustrations and one oblique depiction of sex. Like all myths, this one straddles the line between adult stories and children’s stories.

… it’s only a world, after all, and they’re just sand grains in the desert, worlds.

This is the story of a seven-year-old boy in rural England who befriends an eleven-year-old girl, Lettie Hempstock, who is so wise he asks her how long she has been eleven. She lives on a farm at the end of the lane with her mother and grandmother, both of whom seem similarly older than they appear. When the boy awakes from a dream with a silver shilling in his throat, he goes to Lettie for answers and discovers there is far more to the world than what we see.

Adults should not weep…They did not have mothers who would comfort them.

Like most of Gaiman’s stories, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about supernatural creatures and the ways in which they can be summoned or warded off. But the book is really about childhood. The narrator is a bookish, friendless boy who seeks shelter from the world in his imagination. The decisions his parents make strike him as petty and cruel, yet he yearns for their love. The boy expresses all of the fear and wonder of childhood throughout his adventures.

Neil Gaiman (photo: Kimberly Butler)

Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people used to be scared of long ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scare of, but aren’t.

The boy’s life is shaken up by a kind of monster that has found its way into our world. The monster is not exactly evil, though. In fact, the havoc it wreaks is based on its desire to give people what they think they want. The truth, of course, is that everyone would be much better off if they appreciated what they had instead of coveting what they do not. And then the boy discovers that there are things that even monsters fear.

A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is very much a Neil Gaiman book. It is a fairy tale, yet one in which all of the characters, even those who are immortal or monstrous, are well-rounded and driven by their own motivations. The fantastic events are rooted in folklore and mythology, but more mundane concerns of small-town family life drive the action. Gaiman has done it again, and in this clever little book, he captures the elusive, magical experience of childhood.

About Matt Hlinak

Matt Hlinak
Matt Hlinak is an administrator at Dominican University, just outside of Chicago. He teaches courses in English and legal studies. His short stories have appeared in 'Sudden Flash Youth' (Persea Books 2011) and several literary magazines. 'DoG' (2012) is his debut novel.


  1. I really enjoyed this book! I purchased the audiobook version and there is just something magical about Gaiman’s narration. Perfect match for the content of his books.

  2. John, I’m not surprised to hear you enjoyed the audiobook. Gaiman writes fairy tales, and fairy tales are meant to be read aloud. Plus he’s got a cool English accent. 🙂

  3. I just finished this novel and share in your enthusiasm for it. Gaiman’s work with the triple goddess has been leading to this treatment for a while. The protagonist’s journey in this book offers an insightful metaphor for Gaiman’s history with this trope, I think, as well as a chilly fairytale–perfect for a Halloween read!

  4. Matt Hlinak

    Very astute, Mark. I think my favorite triple goddess treatment from Gaiman’s work is the Furies climax to Sandman. Another good Halloween read!

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