How does he do it? How does Neil Gaiman, a grown man “of a certain age” manage to so effortlessly recall the inner voice and outer actions of a little boy? This short novel is a delightful mix of coming-of-age and creepy thriller, with a final chapter that made me sigh deeply in satisfaction of how the story ended despite the lack of “happy ever after”.
Ocean‘s story is told through the memories of a middle-aged man looking back at events that happened when he was 7 years old. The grown man is back in his home county in England for a funeral (though we never learn who has died), and he takes the opportunity to revisit his childhood home and that of Lettie Hempstock, the slightly (or greatly, depending on how you look at it) older girl who lives down the lane. Behind her house is what looks like a duck pond to our young narrator, though Lettie insists it is an ocean. As the man sits on a bench next to the pond, he begins to remember what really happened all those years ago.
Gaiman perfectly inhabits the body and voice of his young narrator. Again and again, the boy’s reaction to those around him — his pesky little sister, his loving but somewhat absentminded parents, Lettie and her mysterious womenfolk, the horrific nanny who comes to live with him and who cannot be budged — is pitch-perfect. The little boy is shy and quiet, much more comfortable in the company of a book than other boys his age. Even as Lettie takes him on some eerie adventures, and helps him deal with the consequences of those adventures back in the real world, Gaiman makes the reader feel the little boy’s inner strength as well as his sheer terror.
The real-world elements have the ring of sincerity about them, and strangely so do the otherworldly elements. One of Gaiman’s gifts is that he doesn’t try to over-explain the hows and whys of the supernatural elements that appear in his books. They simply are, and the reader believes and struggles to understand even as Gaiman’s characters do. We never fully learn where Lettie and her kin came from or when, but in the end it doesn’t matter. They exist, clearly, because the little boy sees and feels them and the consequences of what they do. No one watching television for the first time ever demands to know how the picture and sound gets inside that little box before they can enjoy the sensation. There’s a time and a place for magic, and no one understands that better than Gaiman.