Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad
It’s as if Neil Gaiman has taken some of his much admired previous work — Sandman, Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods — squeezed the essence out of these titles, distilled their soul and used that concentrate to create the little gem that is The Ocean at the End of the Lane. That is not to suggest that his previous work has lost any value, but that Ocean is very clearly a new, better crafted and more profound achievement for Gaiman as a storyteller. This is how you write a perfect little miracle of a novel in less than 200 pages; this is how you use your craft the best way you can and improve it constantly; this is how you tell a story of myth, memory and magic.
An unnamed man in his forties attends a funeral in a small English village. He speaks a eulogy, greets the mourners, goes through the motions. Afterwards, he is drawn to the house of a girl he knew as a child, though he seems to have only vague memories of her. Seated by the pond behind her farmhouse, the man’s childhood memories return. He remembers being seven and meeting Lettie Hempstock, a girl who has been 11 for a very long time and who says her duck pond is the ocean. He meet’s Lettie’s mother and her grandmother who can remember the Big Bang. He remembers his family’s lodger who killed himself in their family car, his suicide releasing something evil into the boy’s world. Though the man’s death had “started this all off, like something lightening a fuse on a firework,” yet “the thing that’s exploding right now, that isn’t him. That’s something else.”
This “something else” takes the shape of the sudden arrival of a nanny named Ursula, who enters this world as a “flea,” hoping to live off those who inhabit it. She takes over the boy’s life, threatening his childhood, and only the Hempstock women can help. The thing that appears to be Ursula “was power incarnate ... She was the storm, she was the lightening, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty.”
Gaiman has said that The Ocean at the End of the Lane began as a short story and even now, the novel retains a tight structure and perfect pacing. He has also admitted that certain autobiographical details are present in this book — the unnamed narrator could easily be Gaiman himself, his voice is so, so close to that of the writer’s own. This is Gaiman’s first book for adults in eight years. Narrated almost entirely in a flashback by an adult, it has an odd unheimlich feeling as the narrator recollects and relives (alongside the reader) the strange wonder of his childhood, but now with the added wisdom of adult insight.
The seven-year-old version of the narrator is every child who ever felt “books were safer”; he is every child who ever felt threatened by an adult or who felt unable to control what was happening around him. While Gaiman has often been playful with his words in many of his previous novels, Ocean carries with it a weight: the gravity of innocence lost. With Gaiman’s simple, earthy language, it is hard to not be swept up in the smooth flow of his words. But of course, Ocean is a book written by a very clever, crafty writer, himself a trickster storyteller whose truth often lies just below the surface of things. Gaiman is a writer with a deep understanding of friendship, childhood and mythology. “I liked myths,” he writes. “They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane just is. It is a perfect, glistening apple, perhaps one with just a little drop of poison — not enough to kill you, but enough to change you in some way. There are certain tropes at use in Ocean that will be familiar to Gaiman’s fans. Two in particular that help this story be bigger on the inside are: the young boy who is also a door (and “it’s a dangerous thing to be a door”) with a path in his heart, and the pagan Triple Goddess (or the Moirae — pick your mythology), here represented by the three Hempstock women — maiden, mother, crone. Neither entirely fantasy nor fable nor fairy tale, Ocean is poetic and insightful and frightening. Not just because of the sinister charm of fantastical images that sear themselves into your brain — a boy with a hole in his foot trying to yank out a shimmering worm; waking up to a silver coin choking your throat early one morning; great demonic “Hunger Birds” who have come to devour the carrion of memories; a father’s sudden violence; the secret image of a carnal act that is not yet fully understood — but also because they capture perfectly the emptiness of a lonely childhood, and the loss of someone who believed you were worth more.
“You talk in mysteries all the time,” says the seven-year-old with the path in his heart to the eternally young Lettie Hempstock. He could be talking to Neil Gaiman. To those who will label this fantasy and think it is below them, their’s is the loss, and I pity them. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is small, contained and perfect. Dare I make the ubiquitous analogy? Like Lettie Hempstock’s pond that can dissolve you yet contain you forever, this little book is actually an ocean.
ocean-at-end-of-laneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane
By Neil Gaiman