LET'S SAY YOU HAVE A FRIEND who's a hell of a chef. They can put together gigantic, elaborate meals, cook nearly anything to perfection, and know how to use exotic ingredients like pheasant and headcheese. They make smorgasbords. They feast, hosting Thanksgiving-level gluttony parties. One day, you go over to your friend's house hoping for another fantastic display of culinary excess, only to find they've made tomato soup and grilled cheese. Make no mistake, it's great tomato soup and great grilled cheese, but you know that your brilliant chef friend has decided to take it easy for a bit.
Neil Gaiman's latest mini-novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is kind of like that. It's a slim little soup-and-sandwich of a book, and while it's a really good soup and sandwich, it's not at all in the same league as American Gods, Neverwhere, or Sandman. It's not bad. It is, in fact, good. However, it feels like it should make up the bulk of a short story anthology, as opposed to filling out a pair of covers on its own. In the acknowledgements section, Gaiman even mentions that it was, in fact, a short story that had been expanded into a book.
The narrator is an unnamed, bookish seven year-old-boy who encounters a trio of witch-like ladies in mid-twentieth century England. Together, they go exploring, wake up a malevolent beastie, and do battle with a fair amount of evil things. It all works fine, and the epilogue delivers a nice little flourish to what had been a straightforward narrative. But the brevity and small scope of TOatEotL make the words "A Novel" emblazoned on the cover seem a little disingenuous. Novels can be personal and small, of course, but Neil Gaiman is one of the best-branded writers out there. His work exists in the context of his reputation, and TOatEotL doesn't measure up.
Gaiman's an agreeable writer, and it's always nice to spend time in his ooky-spooky nostalgia-tinged world. Eventually he'll return to form (I hope) and brew something dense and ambitious, something that readers can justly call the New Neil Gaiman Novel. When that happens, TOatEotL will most likely be dashed off as one of his parenthetical efforts, a book sought out by completists and superfans, but few others. Gaiman's latest is fine, but he can do so much more than soup and sandwiches.