As The Ocean... begins, a man returns to his hometown for a funeral. His life has been rather uneventful, but not terribly successful. His childhood home no longer exists, and the house that his parents built to replace it is owned by another family now, who have changed its facade. His marriage failed a decade ago, he doesn't seem all that close to either his children or his sister, and his career as an artist attempts to "fill the empty places in [his] life." Without really meaning to, the man drives down the lane and seeing the farmhouse at the end, begins to remember the fantastical events of his childhood. Up until the last chapter, the story is narrated by this unnamed man when he was only a bookish seven-year-old and ended up caught in an unexpected battle between good and evil.
The adventure begins as the opal miner renting a room from the boy's family commits suicide down the lane near the farmhouse. This man's tortured soul awakens a being, not quite evil, but desperately selfish in her attempt to give humans what they want (things like giving money in such a way that it literally chokes people or causes marital strife). The boy is drawn into the battle against her as the farmhouse family, the immortal Hempstocks, try to bind this malignant entity. Through the boy's mistake, she is unleashed into the human world, brought there as a worm in his foot and materializing as the terrifying Ursula Monkton, his new nanny.
Gaiman's book is an adult fairy tale, engaging with a vast number of mythological tropes - the mythic forces of good and evil; conflict between innocence and experience; the threefold goddesses, Old Mrs. Hempstock, Mrs. Hempstock, and the boy's immediate friend, Lettie Hempstock, who has been eleven for a very long time; the pond in the Hempstocks' backyard which is described and later proven to be an ocean containing all knowledge; a sacrifice of one's life for another.
Despite all of this potential, the book was a bit of a let-down. There are a lot of symbols, like kittens and oceanic colors, but they lack subtlety, almost screaming "pay attention to me, I'm important!" The voice of the seven-year-old is hopelessly unbelievable. Occasionally, Gaiman remembers that the boy is seven and doesn't understand all that he sees, but Gaiman's awkward explanations of, say, the boy's confusion at seeing an amorous encounter are painfully uncomfortable and don't fit well with the rest of the boy's narration. Most importantly, I was never led to understand why I should care about this boy, his family, and the Hempstocks. There was very little foreshadowing of later events, so the overall story seemed like a string of unrelated episodes, each having to be newly explained and justified.
As I write this review, I'm struck by the tremendous pessimism of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (Spoiler alert!) After Lettie gives her own life to save the boy from being torn to pieces, eaten, and eternally damned by the crow-like "hunger birds," the boy is reminded that he must make his life meaningful, worthy of Lettie's sacrifice. And yet, as the opening and concluding chapters make clear, the boy grows into a man who is never fulfilled and never really lives up to this enormous obligation. Perhaps it's a statement about how all of us at times lose our way, needing guidance or even just a cup of tea and a friend to talk to, but it's tremendously depressing to realize that as Gaiman frames it, the apparent death of this childhood best friend who just happens to be a goddess (or something similar) may not really have been worth it.