Neil Gaiman Goes For A Supernatural Swim In 'The Ocean'

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Neil Gaiman has been going back and forth between adult and youth fiction with extraordinary success throughout his writing career. His new book, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” is being billed as his first adult novel in eight years.

There aren’t many writers who can envelop you into a supernatural world with the sense of excitement, sophistication and danger as the British-born and Cambridge-based Gaiman. Take the beginning of this book. A middle-aged man returns to Sussex, England, to attend a funeral and Gaiman immediately establishes the tone and the theme of the book — the difference between the eternal child and the masked adult in the prologue:

“I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult.” Later on: “Adults follow paths. Children explore.”

Gaiman excels at dramatizing the childhood delights, terrors and mysteries that are seemingly universal, even as he creates very specific circumstances.

Unfortunately, the novella-like “The Ocean at The End of the Lane” ends up being more fairy tale than literature, more young adult than adult, despite one particularly sexual incident between father and governess.

What’s the difference? The supernaturalism is too abra-cadabra, magic that comes out of nowhere, leaving little room for myth and metaphor. Gaiman doesn’t do the hard work that went into his superlative “American Gods” or his “Sandman” graphic novels (which he's reviving). The world of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” isn’t nearly as seductive.

But while it isn’t seductive, it is addictive, partly because of those childhood traumas Gaiman is so good at recalling, even with a simple sentence: “Nobody came to my seventh birthday party,” begins Chapter I. And how about this, a chapter later: “I was not happy as a child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.”

Here's Gaiman talking about it. His July 13 appearance at First Parish Church has sold out.

But after the narrator meets up with the other main character, the 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, magical unrealism takes over. As attractive as she and her family are, the best moments in the book are when they’re not around spouting their mumbo-jumbo and casting spells.

Let’s hope that when Gaiman does his next adult novel, he leaves the kids home.

Click here for an excerpt.

This program aired on July 9, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.