Book Review: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman
This sad, sweet book is a reflective look back at childhood, a meditation on innocence and trust, and a sorrowful examination of what is lost in the process of growing up.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the unnamed narrator, middle-aged and giving off a sad-sack vibe, returns to his childhood town for the funeral of one of his parents. Needing escape from the formalities and niceties involved in the official mourning process, he drives off toward the site of his ramshackle boyhood home, now a sparkling new housing subdivision, and then is drawn further down the lane. As he travels down the rough country road, memories start to spark — memories of a girl named Lettie, who befriended him at age seven and since moved away. To Australia, perhaps? He’s not sure, but upon arrival at Lettie’s family farm, memories of a pond (that she called an ocean) resurface, and soon, an entire hidden chapter from his childhood comes back to him.
There’s a sorrow that permeates the childhood memories, even before the main events of the story begin. The boy has a nice home and pleasant parents, but is a loner, constantly immersed in books and without any friends. The action kicks off after the boy’s lonely 7th birthday, for which his mother prepares a lovely party and invites the boys from school — but no one comes, which doesn’t surprise the boy:
They were not my friends, after all. They were just the people I went to school with.
This small, sad incident sets the tone for one of the book’s themes. Part of childhood and growing up is coming to understand that parents can’t always protect us from the bad stuff. Life is hard, and loving parents are not infallible. Much as they try, parents can’t keep out the disappointments and harshness that intrude from outside the walls of home.
Moving from the sadness of the failed birthday party, a different sort of world is quickly revealed. There’s an elemental sort of magic involved, and horrible creatures too. The boy’s life and family are threatened by what appears to be an unstoppable evil, masquerading as something lovely and lovable. The world itself seems to be at risk, and great sacrifice and bravery are required. We see it all through the eyes of a man remembering what it felt like to be a child, to be powerless and scared, and to have to carry on anyway.
Ocean is, simply put, quite beautiful. It’s also, in parts, just terrifying. I was reminded in some ways of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. As with the Other Mother in Coraline, the boy in Ocean finds himself at the mercy of a parent who suddenly becomes “other”. Is there anything scarier than seeing one’s ultimate source of safety and love turn into a source of menace and actual danger? The writing here is magnificent, so that as a reader, I could feel the terror of facing harm at the hands of the person who should be a protector.
With his home no longer safe, the boy seeks protection from the Hempstock women, a trio who appear to be a grandmother, mother, and daughter — but who are in reality forces of nature, timeless and powerful, seemingly an eternal type of earth mothers. They have a gentleness about them that partners with their fierce protection of the boy and his world. They are fearless, facing down the “critters” that don’t belong, and carefully snipping time and events to remove the bad parts and make it all work out as it should. The Hempstock women have a purity and earthiness about them, living on their old-fashioned farm, where they drink milk fresh from the cow and eat rough, homemade bread. Even their food and clothes portray them as people out of time, embracing nature and simplicity, separate from the modern world around them.
Again, a Coraline reminder — as menacing creatures rip shreds of the world away, leaving an awful nothingness in those places, I was reminded of Coraline’s attempt to run away from the Other house and finding a world dissolving around the margins. Reality is less firm than we might think, apparently, and when the vast void shows through, it’s horrible to behold.
The narrator of Ocean contemplates sacrifice and its burden — and while it’s specific to the events of the story, it could also apply to the burden all of us might feel growing up aware of what our own parents’ sacrificed in order to give us a better life:
A flash of resentment. It’s hard enough being alive, trying to survive in the world and find your place in it, to do the things you need to do to get by, without wondering if the thing you just did, whatever it was, was worth someone having… if not died, then having given up her life. It wasn’t fair.
On the surface, the narrator is a typical middle-aged adult, beaten down by a life with mixed successes and failures, in which he’s made art, but has also had a challenging personal life and only occasional happiness. Somewhere lurking within him is a secret knowledge of a hidden reality, mostly lost to him but resurfacing on his occasional visits to the Hempstock farm. He represents, in many ways, any adult who has lost touch with childhood belief and imagination, who finds a hint of it resparked by revisiting its source — perhaps a certain place or a book or a favorite toy — and suddenly remembering the joy and pleasure of a child’s view of the world:
I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth… [P]erhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock.
At under 200 pages, Ocean is a spare, compact, poetic book, with a purity of language. The writing is elegant and simple; not a word is wasted, and there’s not a thing missing. Ocean is marketed as a book for adults, but despite the terror of certain parts, I think there’s an ageless appeal to it as well, so that it might also work for older children — although I don’t think they’d appreciate the bittersweet element of childhood remembered from a distance, which adds such beauty and sadness to the book.
This review is already longer than I’d intended, yet I don’t feel I can really do justice to this book. I wonder: Did I really understand it? Did I miss something important the author was trying to convey? Is the meaning I found here at all in line with the author’s intentions? I have no idea.
In reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I found myself both shaken by the boy’s fear and moved by his innocent sense of trust and belief. Even when his parents fail him, the boy has an unshakeable belief in the power of simply holding the hand of someone he trusts, and it’s quite wonderful to behold.
There’s an aching beauty throughout, and something so incredibly sad in the figure of the man drawn back to the Hempstock pond at key moments of his life. Like all adults, he faces daunting questions: Did I measure up? Did I do with my life what I should have done? Was my life worth it? He doesn’t find easy answers, but his pilgrimages to the past seem to bring him peace at key times.
Ocean is a deep, lovely, contemplative work. I imagine that I’ll want to revisit this book repeatedly, to pull apart and tease out all its themes and all it has to offer. Neil Gaiman writes beautifully, with an enchantment to his words that’s an experience in and of itself. I leave you with a magical moment:
I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.
Read The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a unique experience, and one of the most beautifully crafted works I’ve read in a long time.