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“The Ocean at the End of the Lane”: Neil Gaiman returns

Youth and its struggles have always been a central subject of Neil Gaiman's novels, and not just the ones written specifically for children ("Coraline," "The Graveyard Book"). His adult fiction (until this week, the most recent novel was 2005's delightful and rather underappreciated "Anansi Boys") describes characters in pursuit of true love or sorting out their relationships to difficult parents -- the most beleaguered among them being Shadow, the hero of "American Gods," who may have the most vexing father ever.

Gaiman's first novel for adults in eight years, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," would seem to follow this pattern; most of the action, recounted in the first person, describes the experiences of a nameless 7-year-old boy. But "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" does feel different, and not only because of its framing device. The novel begins and ends with the narrator, now an adult, returning to the English village where he grew up, for a family funeral. (The deceased is never identified, but there are hints it is the man's father.) We learn that he's been married and separated, that he is a working artist, that he has grown children. When he looks back on the strange events of his childhood, it is through the mellowed and slightly melancholy lens of middle-age. What the story sacrifices of the sweet, glassy purity of a child's view, it compensates for with the complex sepia of maturity; it's the difference between a bright young white wine and a well-aged burgundy.

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