Not since the last installment in the Harry Potter series have I been so excited about a new book as in the run-up to Neil Gaiman's latest book - his first adult novel in eight years, and the first since I became a fan. But when it arrived in the shop where I worked, nearly a week before it was allowed to be put on sale, I didn't peek. Confession: I love to peek inside embargoed books, to know what the first sentence is before anyone else. But not this one. This one was too dangerous. Open this one, and I knew I'd be good for nothing, and besides, I wanted to read it properly, at leisure and in comfort, not stolen glances while hiding in a stockroom. As luck would have it, the publication date fell on my day off, so, as I did so many years ago, I set my alarm and got up early for the sole purpose of buying this book.
Despite the marketing of Ocean as an adult novel, it is more Graveyard Book than American Gods in tone, with its youthful protagonist and comforting haven of trustworthy adults - although not all adults are in the least bit comforting. It is also reminiscent of Gaiman's short stories, being told in the first person in a confidential, personal manner. Ocean is simply written, without a word wasted. Gaiman makes you feel, not with emotive language, but by writing matter-of-factly of truths that speak to the inner fabric of one's being. The child's-eye view makes everyday disasters monstrous, unendurable, while taking adult tragedies, and the magic and horror of the fantasy novel, pretty much in its stride. Adult understanding is combined with a child's keen but innocent perception, and that underlying darkness is what makes it a book primarily for grown-ups rather than children.
Although Gaiman uses some of his trademark horror elements in Ocean - maggots and decay, monsters and flapping things - the terror I felt in some parts of the novel came from the helplessness of a child in an adult's world. Think of Professor Umbridge in Harry Potter, and that gives a sense of the oppressiveness of the villain. But this is countered by the cosiness of the Hempstocks' farm, a place of utter certainty, trust and safety - if slightly off-kilter. The fantastical plot is secondary to the humanity, compassion and the truths that you can't quite grasp and yet recognise deep within yourself as Gaiman spins his tale. It's a short novel - less than 250 pages, but the world is fully-formed. Not just the house and the lane, which I understand to be based upon Gaiman's own childhood home, but we get to peep at a world beyond the everyday, tantalising hints of a universe that seems to have a life outside the book.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about childhood and magic, about identity, the mysterious and tricky power of memory, and about surviving in a messy world. It is utterly beautiful, and I'm sad to have reached the end. I'll never get to read it for the first time again. And yet, this seems to be a book which will grow and grow on every reading. Let's test that theory.
I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were.
"I'm going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world." She thought for a moment. Then she smiled. "Except for Granny, of course."
"You don't pass or fail at being a person, dear."