I had only once before picked up a Neil Gaiman novel. Looking for a new read aloud for my students, I had read the first few pages of The Graveyard Book. It wasn't appropriate for fourth graders because it was a bit disturbing at the beginning so I put it back on the shelf. The Ocean at The End of the Lane caught my eye because I recognized the author's name and because I found the cover to be absolutely gorgeous. I loved the color theme and the girl under the water peaked my curiosity. I find it hard to resist an attractive cover.
The story begins with our narrator, a middle aged man whose name we never know, attending a funeral. This man decides to take a drive and ends up near the area where he grew up. He recognizes a farmhouse and since it has been decades, he expects to find no one living there. Instead, he finds old Mrs. Hempstock. But wait... it can't be, because she looks exactly the same as she did forty years ago. As they sit down together, he reminisces about his childhood and we are teleported back as he tells a story of friendship, sacrifice, magic, mayhem, and things that go bump in the night.
This isn't a long story. In fact, in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, the author states that it was originally meant to be a short story but then turned into a novel. That being said, I worried that maybe the characters wouldn't be developed enough. Not an issue. I connected to the narrator as the seven year old boy he was throughout most of the book. I felt his pain, his fear, his love and his yearning for things to go back to the way they were before the evil got in. The reader is aware of the evil in the story pretty quickly and it is clear that our young narrator can't fight it on his own. Enter Lettie Hempstock, the youngest of the Hempstock women, who brings him home to her mother and grandmother and helps him deal with this evil. His friendship with Lettie Hempstock was brief but profound and his trust in her was unconditional. She was all he had and I loved how, even being so young, he was ready to sacrifice himself for the world, and she was ready to sacrifice herself for him.
I'm still not sure exactly what the Hempstock women were. It seems to me they were almost guardians of some sort, protecting the world from other beings with a magic that seems similar to witchcraft, yet we are told in the story that witchcraft is not their source of power. The story is original and unique and hard to put down once you start reading because it is not predictable in any way. There are a few revelations at the end but the reader still doesn't have all of the answers when they get to the final pages. I felt however, that it came to enough of a conclusion that it felt finished and I was satisfied. I thought about the story for a long time after I closed it. I may even go back in a few months and read it again. If I were to rate this story on a five star system, It would get a 4.5. I definitely recommend it.