The Ocean at the End of the Lane
William Morrow/Harper Collins
First Edition: June 18, 2013
It might be easy to mistake Neil Gaiman‘s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as a children’s book. It’s a slender volume, quickly read, and told mostly from the viewpoint of a seven year old boy. But it would be naive to mistake it as a children’s book, for the true terror that lies at the heart of the book is the adult realization that the boy around whom the action swirls is caught up in something much bigger than he can comprehend – but we can. Although he at times is terrified, it is we, as adults, who grip the book covers, white knuckled, afraid of what may come next, whether that involves monsters or not.
The story is really quite simple. A middle-aged man returns to his familial home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the neighboring Hempstock farm, found at the end of the lane from the house where he grew up. While sitting at the pond on their property, an extended memory erupts from a time when he was seven, and the suicide of a stranger sets off events which allow a monstrous darkness into the world. This remembered boy becomes a pawn of that darkness, but is also championed by eleven year old Lettie Hempstock, her mother and her grandmother, all of whom are as down-to-earth as they are mysterious. There is no question that the darkness can be cast out, but at what cost?
With Gaiman, however, nothing is ever that deceptively simple, even though The Ocean at the End of the Lane never folds in unnecessary complications. By telling the story almost exclusively in the boy’s voice, Gaiman is able to stay solidly in the center of those experiences without needing to stray into side plots (for what seven year old doesn’t know but to put himself at the center of the universe?). Still, focused does not equate with less enigmatic.
She shrugged. “Once you’ve been around for a bit, you get to know stuff.”
I kicked a stone. “By ‘a bit’ do you mean ‘a really long time’?”
“How old are you, really?” I asked.
I thought for a bit. Then I asked, “How long have you been eleven for?”
She smiled at me.
Also with a child’s voice, Gaiman is able to move easily between accepting the unfathomable and immediately reveling in normalcy, such as a good meal. (“Whatever’s happening,” she said eventually, “it can all be sorted out.” She saw the expression on my face then, worried. Scare even. And she said, “After pancakes.”) We adults find this endearing, slightly humorous, and terrifying, for we know that rolled up pancakes with fresh squeezed lemon and a blob of plum jam in the center will never really make things all better – even though we do have our own deeply buried remembrances of a time when we believed that they would, at least for a while. But before long, indeed, the horror or the fear or the sadness starts again, just as we knew it would.
A noise in the air, a horrible, twisted scratching noise, filled with pain and with wrongness, a noise that set my teeth on edge and made the kitten, its front paws resting on my chest, stiffen and its fur prickle. The little thing twisted and clawed up onto my shoulder, and it hissed and spat. I looked up at Ursula Monkton. It was only when I saw her face that I knew what the noise was.
Ursula Monkton was laughing.
This is vintage Gaiman. This is an author who is at the top of his game, and yet steps back from his pinnacle of tales that tell of continental and multi-mythical conflicts, and of creating worlds under worlds or inside of worlds or around things that never were in the world to begin with, to return to a place of memories; to create a story that encompasses the world, but from the pinpoint of one spot in the world, one period of time, one person’s remembered (perhaps imperfectly) experience. And with all the monsters and all the darkness and all the fear, it is the imperfections in those keenly personal recollections that ultimately speak to us adults the most tragically, for each of us can recognize that loss, even if we never had to recite lines from Gilbert and Sullivan to keep from bolting in fear in the face of monsters.
I had strange dreams in that house, that night. I woke myself in the darkness, and I knew only that a dream had scared me so badly that I had to wake up or die, and yet, try as I might, I could not remember what I had dreamed. The dream was haunting me: standing behind me, present and yet invisible, like the back of my head, simultaneously there and not there.
While the book is not autobiographical, Gaiman does state that he was able to “plunder the landscape” of his own childhood to bring an authenticity to that place, that time, those memories. (I love that the photo on the back of the original edition’s book jacket, of a faceless boy standing on a rain pipe, is actually the author at age seven.) That nostalgic foundation, in turn, supports the eeriness that leaks into the boy’s world and the ethereal nightmares that come later, and so we easily, along with the boy, accept the impossible without argument or complaint. Once again, Neil Gaiman’s voice both soothes and agitates, and tells, with chills and shivers, a whopping good tale.
If I had to place The Ocean at the End of the Lane within a Neil Gaiman lexicon, I would place it somewhere between Neverwhere and American Gods – more focused and elemental than the former and less visceral and isolated than the latter. But it is unlike either, and yet so very, very Gaiman. It may not take you long to read this novel, but it will linger, and will have you cautiously probing your own memories of childhood – wondering if perhaps there might have been more to the experiences of your seven year old self than you realized; and fearing to discover that perhaps there was.