Friday night, I picked up my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, after which I was fortunate enough to be entertained by the author, Neil Gaiman, and then get my copy autographed. After getting off work yesterday afternoon, I sat down with nothing on my agenda except to enjoy this tale at my own pace. Even still, the reading didn’t take very long, partially because it’s not a very long book, and partially because it flows so well. Length notwithstanding, it left enough of an impact that I didn’t want to dive directly into my review; I wanted to spend a little more time letting my mind wander around the novel’s world, and get a better sense of it all.
According to Mr. Gaiman, this novel originated as a short story for his wife, who usually doesn’t go in for “all that fantasy stuff.” It was intended to be a story about the world as he saw it when he was a small child, and that still remains; most of the story is told from the perspective of our unnamed narrator when he was a seven-year-old. The more the author worked on the piece though, the longer it became; he writes everything by hand, and was still convinced it was just at “novella” status until he typed it up. Then, in his own words: “I sent a very surprised email to my editor with the subject line, ‘I appear to have written a novel’.”
The end result was a work that is chock-full of “that fantasy stuff,” but deals with it from the perspective of a young boy who is dealing with the struggles of growing up (his parents’ financial woes, a few untimely deaths, bookworm loneliness, etc) every bit as much as he is dealing with strange creatures from other worlds. More than once was I reminded of my own childhood, which was lived as much inside books (any I could get my hands on) and within my own version of the world (complete with talking orcas and velociraptors) as it was in what adults like to call the “real world.”
The main thrust of the novel begins with our narrator meeting a young girl named Lettie Hempstock, who lives on a farm down the lane form his house with her mother (Mrs. Hempstock) and grandmother (Old Mrs. Hempstock); think the three fates (youth, adulthood, and old age) but with a fair amount of old European witchcraft and nature worship thrown into the mix. The three of them are concerned by strange happenings in the area, and this only deepens when our narrator receives a silver shilling from within a dream in “a most uncomfortable fashion,” as Neil put it during the reading.
Lettie sets out to find the cause of the disturbance and takes our protagonist with her, and what follows is an adventure that any imaginative child would be very familiar with: strange plants grow deep within forests; rows of tails like corn line fields where the Hempstocks “get cats the normal way”; children’s songs and nursery rhymes hold great power; and ancient things without form lurk under dark skies. The sense of childlike wonder is very real, as is the fear and frustration of knowing something vitally important and being worried that adults won’t believe you; or worse, that they’ll be angry and somehow think the bad things are your fault. It also deals with the inevitable transience of childhood loves and friendships, such as the sting of saying goodbye to a friend met at camp in an era before cell phones and social media.
The novel is book-ended by narration from the protagonist on a return trip to his home town, which is why these old thoughts and memories are stirring. I found these parts of the novel especially difficult, mainly because they evoke a sense of change that grows in my adult heart and mind with each passing year. When the narrator finally returns to the “ocean” – a duck pond at the rear of the Hempstock property – his adult self finds little more than a muddy pond. I can’t help but remember how huge and full of adventure my grandparent’s backyard seemed when I was a child; the last time I saw it, while helping my grandmother move out just a few years ago, it seemed heart-breakingly small and ephemeral.
I’m not going to give this novel a “score,” nor do I know that I will ever be able to do so with any book review I write. I dislike it enough with games and movies, but I can still dredge up a number; that just feels wrong with books. What I will say is that if you ever lost yourself in an afternoon of imagination as a child, [amazon_link id=”B009NFHF0Q” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Ocean at the End of the Lane[/amazon_link] is probably the closest you’ll come to getting to do it as a “grown-up.” Just remember that some things, once they are opened, can’t ever be closed again; and some things, once lost, may never be found in this life.
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