Neil Gaiman is a charmingly bizarre combination of Roald Dahl and Edgar Allen Poe. He has gained rock star status as a writer in the hipster/nerd crowd, penning popular episodes of Doctor Who, winning repeat Hugos and Nebulas, and gaining a Twitter following that boggles the mind. Gaiman's imagination produces fantastically dark and quirky stories that appeal to both children and adults. Often, he blurs the line between the two genres, weaving fairy tales so eerie and rife with horror that they put the Brothers Grimm to shame. His newest, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a story told from a child's perspective but with adult hindsight and peculiar themes. The now-middle-aged narrator (whose name remains a mystery) returns to his childhood home on a rural, wooded lane in Sussex. His homecoming spurs the return of the long-forgotten memory of his seventh birthday. That was the year he got a cat, lost a cat, accidentally used his body as a passage to welcome in spirits that do not belong in this world and got another cat.
Following the suicide of one of his parents' boarders, our narrator seeks refuge in the home of his eccentric neighbors, the Hempstocks. Though Lettie Hempstock claims to be only 11, our narrator is sure she is wise beyond her years, since she understands things about the world that he has never even imagined. With the help of her mother and grandmother, Lettie has to close the supernatural doorway she has accidentally opened before something terrible makes its way through.
Ocean is being billed as one of Gaiman's first adult novels in a long while, but this description is questionable. Though many of the underlying themes are heavy-hitting and certainly not sugarcoated, there is no reason why a young adult or pre-teen could not fully enjoy, comprehend or process them. Gaiman illustrates the ideas of loss, love and trust in a way that borders on the allegorical, while at the same time being tragically realistic in terms of emotions. These are not foreign themes when compared to the required reading lists at most junior high schools. Still, Gaiman adds a twisted and peculiar originality to the otherwise common literary themes.
Ocean is more devastating than some of his previous novels, like Coraline and The Graveyard Book. It's also slightly less engrossing; it meanders from beginning to end, coming together in small pieces from time to time. His other works, for adults and children, have a stronger sense of direction and more artfully complex story structures. Ocean is still cleverly delightful, but it's not Gaiman at his best.