We readers expect magic when we pick up a Neil Gaiman novel. By now he’s built a reputation for his own unique brand of spellbinding fiction, but even among works like American Gods, Stardust and Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane stands as a landmark. Never before has Gaiman’s fiction felt this personal, this vibrant or this deeply intimate.

Gaiman’s hero is an unnamed narrator who returns to his childhood home as an adult and is flooded with memories of a farm at the end of the English country lane where he grew up. We relive those boyhood memories as he does, beginning with an odd tragedy that brought him to the doorstep of the Hempstock family. There he met 11-year-old Lettie, her mother and her ancient grandmother, who claims she was around when the moon was first made. There he finds a pond that Lettie insists is an ocean. And there he embarked on a strange, mesmerizing and often terrifying adventure that probes the often unreachable corners of human memory, nostalgia and wonder.

Never before has Gaiman’s fiction felt this personal.

At fewer than 200 pages, this is one of Gaiman’s shortest books, and yet The Ocean at the End of the Lane is overflowing with ambition. As it meanders through ever-thickening layers of magical intrigue—which wrap this book like bright green English moss—the novel becomes something more than a boyhood adventure story. It is a fable about the practicalities and inconsistencies of magic, about the often unreliable powers of memory and about how fear can often make us stronger. All this is imparted through a lightning-quick narrative filled with typically spellbinding Gaiman imagery, and told in unpretentious but endlessly evocative prose. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a character study trapped in a fairy tale, a coming-of-age story wrapped in the trappings of myth. It’s Gaiman at his bittersweet, hypnotic best, and it’s a can’t-miss book for this summer. 

Matthew Jackson reviews from Texas.

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