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Photograph: Jessica Lin

Book review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Strains of Sendak and Bradbury can be detected in Gaiman's latest, a story of lost innocence that features flawless writing and an eerie villain.

By Jen Nails

By Neil Gaiman. William Morrow, $26.

When a nameless man returns to his childhood home in the English countryside for a funeral, memories of his friend and neighbor Lettie Hempstock come flooding back. As a seven-year-old boy, he dreams he is choking and wakes to find a silver coin lodged in his throat. Lettie and her family—all of whom are witches—explain that an evil force has been unleashed, one that grants wealth, but at a cost far greater than any riches received. And with this, Neil Gaiman sweeps his reader into yet another world of myth and darkness, of innocence lost and perspective gained.

The vile spirit identified by the Hempstocks nevertheless ingratiates itself into the boy’s life, taking the shape of his pretty new nanny, Ursula Monkton. His family is so taken with her that they become possessed. In what is arguably the book’s most haunting scene, the boy refuses to eat a meal cooked by Ursula, and, in a rage, his father nearly drowns him in an ice-cold bath. Dangerous encounters with Ursula continue until the boy escapes down the lane to Lettie’s farmhouse, where the young friends must risk everything to stop her.

Framed as a memory, The Ocean at the End of the Lane beautifully toes the line between adult recollections and active childhood events. Flawless writing, a flawed narrator and an eerie villain—groupings of floating, rotted cloths that writhe and transform into Ursula—all contribute to the novel’s success. The narrator’s voice so deeply and honestly taps into the fear and yearning of a child’s soul, it echoes characters in Maurice Sendak’s canon. Strains of Something Wicked This Way Comes can also be detected in the background, as both Ray Bradbury and Gaiman play with themes of greed, transformation and redemption. And both, of course, also play with the hairs on the back of your neck.

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