Coming Home: Why I Still Love Neil Gaiman’s ‘Ocean’

Janet Stilson
Published in
5 min readSep 3


Duck pond or enchanted ocean? That’s at the heart of Neil Gaiman’s time-honored fantasy novel. Image credit: Catherine Kay Greenup on Unsplash

It can feel magical — traveling to see places and people from the distant past. A long-lost cabin on a lake, a friend who went on crazy adventures with you, the field where you spent long hours playing kickball. For me, the delicious sense of delving backwards has involved a book that I first read years ago and which grew richer on the second reading over the last month: Neal Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”

We’ve all been programmed to focus on what’s newer and smarter, out there in the world today. People who are voracious readers, like me, simply can’t keep up with the latest releases. So why am I telling you about a book that debuted 10 years ago?

Because time doesn’t matter with gems like this.


As you might be well aware, Gaiman is a rock star in the fantasy realm. Maybe you’ve watched shows based on his many novels, children’s stories, and comic books. Among them are “Coraline,” “Good Omens,” “Lucifer,” “American Gods,” and “The Sandman.” Maybe you absorbed the originals or other stories Gaiman has churned out. You might have seen the play based on “Ocean,” which had some runs in the U.K.

For me, the novel “Ocean” shines out, in the greater Gaiman universe, for a reason that I sensed while reading it but didn’t confirm until later on. As he explained in an NPR interview, Gaiman pulled up some deeply remembered elements of his own past while writing “Ocean” — although it’s not an autobiography.

When I started writing fiction long ago, I quickly learned that “there’s no place like home,” just like Dorothy told us. Personal experiences can be powerful building blocks. Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly a ton of wonderful books that are deeply researched, with storylines that are far afield from the author’s personal experiences. But “Ocean” contains a warmth and vibration that relates to how Gaiman felt, what he loved, and maybe what he feared, long ago. And combining that with fantasy gives the book a spellbinding quality.

In the NPR interview, Gaiman explains that when he started drafting the book, he thought he was writing a short story and that it might be for children. But because it grew longer, and it wasn’t so much about hope (as so many children’s books are), but a boy’s journey into sometimes frightening and bewildering territory that he doesn’t understand, it eventually fell into the adult fiction realm.

It begins when the unnamed narrator returns to the place where he spent his childhood — in Sussex, England, where Gaiman was raised. And after that introduction, most of the story is a remembrance of what happened when the narrator was a seven-year-old boy. Like the protagonist, Gaiman was a book-obsessed lad. In fact, he says his parents used to drop him off at the library with a sandwich, because he spent so many hours devouring the stories on the bookshelves there.

To the untrained eyes, the “ocean” in the title is actually a duck pond. It’s located within the old-fashioned, country domain of the Hemstock family: a grandmother, mother, and a daughter named Lettie who’s a few years older than the boy.


He’s thrust into their world after his parent’s tenant steals the family car and commits suicide near the Hemstock farm. It soon becomes clear that the Hemstocks have access to magical realms, and Lettie uses her powers to help her new young friend. But this inadvertently triggers the appearance of a nanny named Miss Monkton in the boy’s home. She’s adored by his parents and bratty younger sister. But for the boy, Monkton’s blue-grey eyes “put me in mind of holes rotted in canvas.”

Miss Monkton punishes him repeatedly in ways that make it clear he’s dealing with a powerful supernatural being, and he has a growing sense of helplessness. It’s only through the Hemstocks’ supernatural powers that the boy stands any chance against the nanny.

While Gaiman has played around a lot in his fiction with mythical creatures, along with gods people have worshipped in ancient and modern times, the Hemstocks don’t appear to be patterned on any legend in particular. Although Lettie roughly falls in the guardian angel category — or the supernatural big sister you’ll wish you had. And she holds a wisdom that’s beyond her years.

“I’m going to tell you something important,” she tells the boy. “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside … Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

Gaiman spreads his soundbite jewels around. At one point, malignant powers tell the boy: “There can never be a time … when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time.”

Not everything in the book felt spot on. There was at least one time when the seven-year-old boy’s dialog seemed a little too wise beyond his years. Couldn’t quite buy it, no matter how precocious he is. But in the greater scheme of things, that seemed minor.


One of my favorite aspects of the book relates to how it plays with an experience that a lot of us have when we see long ago places and people: distant memories that had been stuffed into the remote recesses of our minds suddenly spring back. The novel uses that in inventive ways, particularly toward the end.

As I reread the book, memories of the storyline came back in waves, making the sensation of the narrator’s own memories all the more resonant. But there were also layers to the story that I don’t think I ever recognized the first time I read it, although they might have gotten completely lost in the wispy tendrils in my brain.

I’ve always loved Thomas Wolfe’s book title “You Can’t Go Home Again.” And while that might be true, “Ocean” suggests that maybe, in some enchanted ways, you can.



Janet Stilson

Janet Stilson’s cyberpunk sci-fi novel THE JUICE, was published to rave reviews. She also won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.