Alexandra Alter described it in The Wall Street Journal as follows: "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" is Mr. Gaiman's first novel for adults in eight years. It's also the darkest, most personal and most autobiographical book he's produced in his 30-year career.
The novel is set in the English countryside, where a middle-aged, divorced man returns to his childhood hometown for a funeral. He takes a detour to visit a farm where he used to play. As he stares at a small, scummy pond, a suppressed memory bubbles up. He remembers being seven years old, and the shock of discovering the body of a South African lodger who lived with his family and committed suicide in the family's Mini Cooper. The man's death attracts an evil spirit, a terrifying creature from another world whose body is composed of floating gray rags. The boy confronts the spirit with the help of his young neighbor, the 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, who turns out to be far older than she looks, and capable of wielding powerful magic. The story manages to be both epic and quotidian, as the boy fights real monsters but also wrestles with more mundane but equally terrifying issues: the death of his kitten, a disastrous birthday party that no one shows up to, and being misunderstood by his family, especially his distant and cruel father.
Mr. Gaiman says he stumbled into the novel by accident. A decade ago, he bought a Mini Cooper, which reminded him of the Mini his family had when he was a boy living in Sussex, England. He asked his father, who has since died, what became of the car. His father told him a secret that he had kept from his son for nearly four decades. Mr. Gaiman's father sold the car because a man who rented a room from the family committed suicide in it after losing all his money gambling.
"I found it so strange that something like this had happened when I was seven, and I had no idea," Mr. Gaiman said. "That little thing sat in my head like a piece of grit and just irritated me."
Several years and many projects later, Mr. Gaiman decided to explore the fragment of family history in a short story. He borrowed the location and other details from his childhood, and created a protagonist that he describes as "very much me." To Mr. Gaiman's surprise, the short story mushroomed into a novel.
"I've never written a novel accidentally before," he said. "When I've written novels in the past they've been absolutely intentional."
Two of his other intentional novels I've loved: Neverwhere and Mirrormask. Perfect summer escapes.