The Ocean at the End of the Lane: An evocative return to childhood

Neil Gaiman The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman fantasy book reviewThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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.

Release date: June 18, 2013. Publisher: THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is a fable that reshapes modern fantasy: moving, terrifying and elegiac — as pure as a dream, as delicate as a butterfly’s wing, as dangerous as a knife in the dark, from storytelling genius Neil Gaiman. It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed — within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it. His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.

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REBECCA FISHER earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand.

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9 comments

  1. Brad Hawley /

    I love your review. And thanks for not giving away plot. I had preordered it, but wasn’t going to start it right away. You just changed my mind! I’ll be starting this novel tonight!

    I know everyone talks about how great American Gods is, but read The Graveyard Book first since it’s about a boy and will have some of the same qualities you said you like about this new novel.

    After that, I’d read Neverwhere because, though it’s about a man, he’s naive and childlike as he stumbles into this new world hidden just below London.

    Today I started reading SANDMAN again in order to start a series of in-depth essay-reviews to cover all 76 issues (to supplement our current single review that covers briefly the entire series). I’ve decided that SANDMAN might be my favorite work of art of all time. (Check back here on Friday for the first essay).

    Finally, after you read The Graveyard Book and Neverwhere (and SANDMAN?), check out Gaiman reading both novels. Even my seven year old will sit still quietly if he hears Gaiman reading! In fact, though I didn’t like it when I read it, I loved ODD AND THE FROST GIANT when Gaiman read it. I’ve listened to that two-hour book twice now.

    • I liked America Gods better than Neverwhere, but, of course, I didn’t dislike Neverwhere. I did not like the Neverwhere TV miniseries, though, which, if I remember correctly, actually came before the book.

      I love Sandman, of which I’ve read the first four volumes. I bought the ten-volume set in a slipcase as a birthday present for my (grown) son this past year.

      I’ve heard Gaiman read (not in person) some of his short-short fiction, and now, when I read something of his, I sub-vocalize in is voice. :)

      • Brad /

        I heard the TV show is pretty bad. There’s also a comic book adaptation of Neverwhere that I can never finish because I just don’t like the art enough. The text is good, though, since it’s adapted by Mike Carey who wrote Lucifer, a SANDMAN spinoff series, and a series of urban fantasy novels about Felix Castor.

  2. I think Coraline also may have a similar feel, at least the dark aspects. (I love to creep out my little girls sometimes by telling them I’m the “other mother.”)

    I’m looking forward to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Thanks, Rebecca!

  3. I’ve been seeing lots of hype for this book and I think already that it’s going to be one I’ll enjoy. I haven’t read too much of Gaiman’s stuff either, but that’s more due to distraction by other books than not liking what or how he writes, and with all the good things I’ve heard about his latest, yeah, I think it’s one that I’m going to have to treat myself to. Great review, and it made me look forward to reading it even more!

  4. Brad /

    Just finished the book. Wow. Here’s my summary:the first half is good, the second half is excellent, and the ending makes the entire story perfect!

    Rebecca: Your description of the feel of the book was completely accurate! Thanks again for making me want to read it right away.

  5. I know I’m about a hundred years behind the times…but Gaiman writes children’s books almost better than he writes anything else, for exactly the reasons you describe: You really remember what it’s like to be a child, and have that same sense of wonder and fear and seriousness. Did you get around to reading The Graveyard Book? Because I think I liked it even better.

    • Rebecca /

      I haven’t yet got my hands on The Graveyard Book, but I HAVE recently read Coraline (it’s sitting beside me right this moment, waiting to be reviewed) and again it’s a great example of how Gaiman manages to tap into childhood fears and their POV. With both books I actually found myself reminded of how it was to be a child and thinking “oh yeah, I remember those funny little thoughts/feelings.”

      • I loved Coraline! The Graveyard Book is toward the top of my TBR pile. I should be finally getting to it before the end of the year.

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