The line between a book for adults and one for children is at the best of times unstable. As a writer, Neil Gaiman’s always been playing with it, in one way or another. He has had better luck with the porous border when he tries to write books “for all ages.” His books for children, like Coraline, are the kind that you would be happy to see join the other founding myths on a child’s shelf, placed next to Narnia or Harry Potter. The skill of that sort of work is to refashion what adults recognize as the enduring story arcs of of legends and fables — beldames, Christ-on-the-cross, father-figure mentors — into something that has a whiff of the contemporary, enough to remind children that these things really could happen.
In Gaiman’s new novella, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the writer is trying to double back once more on the fold. This book for adults has a plot that looks made for children. As the book opens, our now-grown-up narrator is returning to visit his childhood home and finds himself drawn to a nearby farm with a distinctly enchanted quality. He gradually remembers having been involved with the three women, the Hempsteads, who lived there when he was a child of seven. Almost without realizing it, he becomes a central figure in a sort of cosmic battle, between the “old country,” to which the women belong, and the new.
The point of conflict is, as in Coraline, the rise of an uncanny, malevolent female taking the place of a nurturing mother. But here the hag figure is more clearly styled a sexual predator, one who threatens the seven-year-old’s certainty of his father’s goodness. As such Gaiman is attempting the territory of the bildungsroman, with the additional distance of a narrator who is already grown up. And of course, as such, he feels ambivalence about growing up. “I do not miss childhood,” he muses at one point, “but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled.”
You could say that with this book, Gaiman’s most successful attempt at a novel “for adults” to date, he has at last learned that one needn’t write so self-consciously about “greater things” to get at them. That, I’ve always thought, was the problem with his American Gods. Granted, it was a bestseller when it appeared in 2001, but it was a creaky, disjointed one. Weighed down with overcooked mythology, explicit sex, and borrowings from noir, it was a bit too aggressive on the “adult” point to hang together, in a way that suggested insecurity on the author’s part. It was as if Gaiman, a Brit, was sure he could do the natives one better at making an a grand American fantasy and was throwing everything at the wall to prove it. Or, perhaps, to show that he could invent on an epic scale without borrowing from Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels more like Gaiman’s attempt to do Chekhov, to hint at big things by way of small ones. Everything is narrowly conceived, from setting to cast of characters to plot and even to the slim and elegant conception of that “old country.” Gaiman wears the narrowness of it surprisingly well, forcing him to be subtle where he’s before been a maximalist. For example, because Gaiman’s narrator is mostly articulating what he thought and saw at seven years old, he bears only indirect witness to questions of sex and religion. I preferred to gather the sex, somehow, through the way the beldame is seen “hugging [another] from behind.” The technique here is not unlike Emma Donoghue’s in Room, using a child’s blinkers to illuminate the things happening beyond his gaze. It isn’t the least bit coy.
That said, Gaiman’s control is not perfect: when he abandons indirection, things get a bit shaky. Not every observation fails, of course. At one point the narrator muses,
Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between the fences.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane gets away with generalizations like that because Gaiman is distilling the insights of a child in the language of an adult. And yet the flat psychological understanding of it gets even more explicit as the narrator’s observations veer towards literary manifesto:
I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.
Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?
Setting aside that the formulations are clumsy here, the question too is at best an awkward attempt at irony. Gaiman of all people knows the answer: actually, adults do want to read such stories. In those small moments, I think, Gaiman would be better to follow his character’s advice and let his attempts at myth just be. When he does, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not just very good but cleaves quite close to greatness. It suggests that the process of growing may be learning how those “greater things” the narrator reflects on are entwined with the small things he took pleasure in as a child — much as the pond at the Hempsteads’ farm is actually, as one of the women there insists, an ocean.