Thanks to PBS, every English school boy I read in the first person sounds like Gian Sammarco’s Adrain Mole, the title character from the ITV series based on Sue Townsend’s book, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. The protagonist from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End of the Lane is no exception. He may be a few years Adrian’s junior but no less precocious or opinionated. My favorite observation of his is: “Adults follow paths. Children explore.” I liked it so much I tweeted it. In the current state of K-12 education, it is a very poignant observation on how we approach curriculum.
That distinction between adults and children, authority and rebellion, reality and imagination, is made throughout the story as Gaiman’s nameless narrator describes the supernatural events that his new best friend, Lettie, and he encounter. I don’t remember it exactly but there is a moment in the book where the narrator is dumbfounded by Lettie’s insistence on doing something her mother or grandmother have explicitly told her not to. He doesn’t try to stop her, but dumbfoundly says something to the effect of “But an adult said, No.”
However, Gaiman’s young child narrator is not completely without the hinderances of adult sensibility. He tells Lettie that the ocean at the end of the lane is not really an ocean but a pond. He has also created a set of norms, expectations of the everyday world. Lettie and her family live slightly outside of his established norms, prompting him to ask Lettie if she is a ghost (so not wholly adult).
Though well executed, the plot of the book is nothing new. It is a familiar horror and fantasy genre story about a young boy (our narrator) who meets a mysterious girl (Lettie) and the two go off together on some sort of fantastic supernatural/mystical adventure. In Ocean, they visit a supernatural dimension, where our young narrator slips up and unintentionally disobeys the Lettie’s instructions. He lets go of her hand when he thinks he will be hit. He ends up bringing back to the “real” world a malevolent spirit that immediately causes trouble in their little town.
According to Wikipedia, Gaiman did not intend for Ocean to be a novel. The entry cites Leah Schnelbach’s post on Tor.com. It’s an informative post that refers to Ocean as an “accidental” novel and gives us greater insight into the process of its creation. She quotes Gaiman as saying, “I started writing it for Amanda [musician Amanda Palmer, who has been married to Gaiman since 2011] because I missed her, but then it kept growing.”
Knowing that it was an “accidental” novel, I am now a bigger fan of Neil Gaiman, whose Sandman series drew me back to comics after a decade away. But more importantly, he has given my eldest son and I another book we can share. Both my eldest and I have read and discussed Ocean like we did The Graveyard Book before it. I think Ocean more deftly balances belief and make believe than Graveyard. Gaiman obscures just enough of the book’s reality just enough to have us guessing at what is real and what is fantasy or supernatural.