I’ll start by saying that I’m not hugely familiar with Neil Gaiman’s work. I’ve read Stardust and watched his two Doctor Who episodes… and that’s it. At first I wasn’t sure whether or not to absorb more of his work before tackling The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but decided against it for the sake of a fresh perspective. So consider this a review from someone who has very few preconceptions about Gaiman’s style and themes.
Our middle-aged protagonist (I don’t recall if we ever learn his name) recounts to us his movements after a family funeral. Instead of going to the wake he drives through Sussex to his childhood home where vague memories begin to stir. Going down a little country lane he arrives at the Hempstock family farmhouse, certain that he used to play with the family’s young daughter Lettie. At the back of the property is a pond that Lettie once claimed was an ocean, though this never made sense to him as a boy. But now, standing there, he begins to remember…
This prologue leads into the story proper. We’re taken back to the boy’s childhood, on the day when his beloved kitten was run over by an opal miner, learning through his narration that he has few friends, a rather distant relationship with his parents, and spends most of his time reading books. But the suicide of the coal miner begins a domino effect of strange and often frightening supernatural occurrences that throw our young narrator into grave danger, within his home as well as without. He can only be saved from his horror by the three mysterious women living on Hempstock farm.
To be honest, I don’t really want to go into too much detail regarding the plot for fear of ruining some of the surprises in store. I read it with no foreknowledge whatsoever about what it was about and enjoyed the story all the more for it. It’s better to talk about how the book made me feel.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, more so than any other book I’ve read in recent memory, really recaptured what it was like to be a child. Gaiman expertly encapsulates the wonder, the terror, the powerlessness of what it is to be a seven year old; how adults can be care-givers but also jail-wardens, how things that we take for granted as an adult make absolutely no sense to a child, and how anything bizarre can be taken in stride but everyday things such as relationships and careers and finances can be utterly terrifying.
It actually brought back memories of my own childhood: the way food seemed to taste so much better, the joy of being warm and dry after being cold and wet, the absurdity of taking the main road to get somewhere when I knew a dozen short-cuts, and of course the wisdom and knowledge and comfort that could be gleaned from books. This really is a book written from a child’s perspective, for we are shown things through the boy’s eyes that make no sense to him, though we understand exactly what they are. Alternately, the framing device of the adult narrator also means that he can provide plenty of insight into the way children think. For example: “small children believe themselves to be gods, or some of them do, and they can only be satisfied when the rest of the world goes along with their way of seeing things” or “my parents were a unit, inviolate” or “she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh; she was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win.”
Gaiman isn’t afraid to portray the dark side of childhood as well as its delights, and the supernatural qualities of the storyline emphasis this theme. Also explored is the mutability of memory. Because the entire story is told from the point-of-view of a grown man looking back on his childhood several questions are raised about the accuracy and nature of his reminiscence. How much are we shaped by what we remember? Who do we become if we forget things? I certainly can’t remember everything about my own childhood, and this book made me wonder whether there are any significant events that I can no longer recall that shaped me into the adult I am today.
Finally, what I loved most about the plot was the way that several bizarre occurrences and arrivals took place without any immediate explanations. It really hooks the reader and gives the entire story a sense of depth and mystery and terror (after all, the most frightening thing in the world is the unknown). Like peeling back layers, only with each layer being more expansive than the one before, we learn more about the source of all the trouble only gradually. It reminded very much of the way Diana Wynne Jones writes her stories (Black Maria in particular) and of Hayao Miyazaki’s ability to instil the portrayal of an ordinary childhood rife with unexplained creatures and diminishing boundaries between us and another world.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is definitely a must-read for me, and will no doubt spur me into checking out more of Gaiman’s work.