There is a risk, when a book is written in the first person, of assuming the story is autobiographical. The reader imagines that the thin letter I is a sort of doorway through which the author is peeking. Neil Gaiman has written several short stories and graphic novels which are written in the first person, and I suppose the narrator of each of those tales shares some things in common with the author, but I don't suppose any of them are autobiographical in the same sense Henry Miller's or Charles Bukowski's novels are.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Mr. Gaiman's first adult novel written in the first person (also his first since 2005). I suppose it to be one of his most personal novels — it was written for his wife, Amanda F'ing Palmer — and I suppose the narrator to have many traits in common with the author. But I doubt it is autobiographical, not in the traditional sense.
Like many of his fans, I was introduced to Neil Gaiman's writing through The Sandman comics. I was working at the Infernal Bookstore, and a coworker loaned me the Seasons of Mists set. This was an excellent place to begin reading this series, and led me to read the whole series from the beginning. I then went on to read many of his other comic series, graphic novels, short stories, and novels.
The Sandman comics made me aware of some common themes in Mr. Gaiman's work: the nature of identity; what becomes of the old gods; and the betrayal of innocence. There's a degree to which Ocean touches on all three of these themes, but the emphasis is on the betrayal of innocence.
Innocence is betrayed when a child is traumatically exposed to adult concerns. Child abuse is an obvious example, famously explored in The Doll's House portion of The Sandman. The trauma in Ocean is the suicide of a lodger. This trauma sets the main action of the novel in motion.
I hardly know how to classify this novel — fantasy, horror, or myth. There are fantastic elements, the most apparent being that the ocean of the title actually appears to be a regular farm pond. The lodger's suicide creates an opening, of sorts, for a horrific and malevolent being who tempts humans with money.
Then there are the three women who live by that pond which may be an ocean: daughter, mother, grandmother. They are a mythic type readers of The Sandman will quickly recognize: maiden, mother, crone: The Fates. This distaff trinity pre-dates the Christian trinity, so often seen as male-dominant. This feminine trinity has many names: as the Fates, they both give life and end it.
I believe Neil Gaiman to be one of the best authorities on myth since Joseph Campbell. So I think he uses “the three-faced goddess” intentionally. The narrator is reflecting on the events which followed that initial betrayal of innocence. The narrator ultimately examines his life.
Myth, as Campbell would say, causes us to examine our lives. Myth can become a sort of pilgrimage, where the reader journeys with the main character and recognizes a new strength, or realizes new meaning, through the journey.
Gaiman creates this mythic space in many ways, primarily by his use of detail — or lack of it. The first person narrator, for example, is never named; thus, the reader is more likely to identify with the narrator. Likewise, we're never told such details as what he looks like, even what color his hair or eyes are. All we know is that he is seven — not too young, perhaps, for a country boy to encounter death, but certainly too young to be exposed to a suicide.
There are, in fact, very few named characters in the novel – only those three women, the Hempstocks; that malevolent force (which takes the name Ursula Monkton); and three cats (two kittens of unknown gender and one tom). The reader becomes more involved in the story by filling in these blanks.
The houses are described in fairly general detail — with the exception of three rooms in which the narrator sleeps. I've read that many readers picture their own house when imagining the narrator's.
This is a bit of a spoiler, but for me, the element which solidifies this as myth rather than horror or fantasy is a sacrifice. This sacrifice is not ritualistic, but more in the nature of a soldier sacrificing her/his life for a fellow. This element causes the narrator to question whether he has lived a life worthy of that sacrifice.
For myth to serve as pilgrimage rather than a diversionary story, the reader must exert some effort. As I say, the author has left some details out; it's up to the reader to fill them in. The reader may be intellectually aware of certain mythic tropes — the Fates, the ancient evil — but it's best to set that knowledge to one side; it's best to allow it to play a quiet counterpoint to the story. The pilgrim reader will allow herself to walk along with the narrator; may find himself seeing his own reflection when the narrator looks in the mirror.
The reader who has thus identified with that unnamed narrator, who has allowed himself to be vulnerable to the rhythmic beats of the novel, will likely find himself asking whether he has lived a life worthy of such a sacrifice. Perhaps, more than any turn of a calendar leaf, the pilgrimage through this mythic novel will lead to a resolve to live such a life.