I admit there was a bit of a high-pitched shriek on Twitter the day I found out Neil Gaiman had a new novel coming out. Mind you, this is about on schedule for him—he seems to have one steeped and ready every four or five years. Gaiman is a prolific author but has never confined himself to any one genre or form. Indeed, as I glanced over his bibliography page on Wikipedia, I was surprised to see that he has written much more in the way of juvenile fiction than adult novels. I guess, since I became more aware of Gaiman as an adult, I’ve always thought of him as a writer of adult novels that happen to also have an audience in children. The Ocean at the End of the Lane carries on in this tradition, though there are some additional nuances to this idea that I’d like to explore later on.
My original plan had been to buy this book right away (because I couldn’t wait) but save it for my flight home at the end of July—I like to take a book I’m confident of enjoying and savouring, and this seemed like just the thing. I severely underestimated my willpower. I rationalize my decision after the fact by pointing out that at this edition’s 248 pages, it would not last very long on my eight-hour flight. In any event, I dug into The Ocean at the End of the Lane over the weekend and enjoyed almost every minute of it.
The narrator is a middle-aged man who “makes art” and has returned to the village of his childhood for a funeral. This awakens memories probably best left forgotten, memories of a time when he was seven years old. A misadventure with Lettie Hempstock, an ostensible 11-year-old living with her mother and ancient grandmother at the end of the lane, results in them letting something loose into the world, something that isn’t meant to be here. The narrator (whose name we never learn) is the door; he is integral to getting the creature to return from where it came, and the creature doesn’t want to go back.
I just love how Gaiman explains things in the seven-year-old’s voice:
I wished I had never let go of Lettie’s hand. Ursula Monkton was my fault, I was certain of it, and I would not be able to get rid of her by flushing her down a plughole, or putting frogs in her bed.
Having gone on an adventure, the children fail to follow the golden rule—whether it’s to stay on the path, or not to look back, or not to let go—and this results in something very bad happening indeed. In this case, as is often the case it isn’t really the narrator’s fault; he’s just a scared little kid who is too far out of his depth. Sometimes, these problems are inevitable.
The creature takes on the form of Ursula Monkton and insinuates herself into the narrator’s household as a housekeeper, ingratiating herself with everyone else except the narrator. He sees through her thin disguise right away, which causes the creature to panic and think up new and inventive ways to make his life miserable. They engage in the classical arena between monster and child: a battle of wits and will. No one except the child recognizes the monster for what it is, and the monster promises that nothing can ever save the child. Ursula slowly twists the child’s family members, turning them away from him. The mother is out all the time, working a second job or raising money for a charity; the sister loves Ursula and is all-too-ready to side with her against her brother; the father becomes smitten with Ursula, and we get to watch that progress through a child’s eyes.
Gaiman refers to this as “a novel about survival” (the back cover of this edition gives him space for a brief statement), and I can see why. This is not a typical childhood adventure; there is no quest or journey here. It’s a raw, primal fight against an external force that amplifies the mundane concerns of childhood: the loss of attention/affection from one’s parents, the loss of hope against seemingly impossible odds, the vague sense that actually attaining the future seems to be more difficult with each passing year. Children, as the Maurice Sendak epigraph reminds us at the beginning of the book, experience some impressive nadirs of fear and uncertainty that adults, in our quest to idealize the supposed innocence of the past, are so eager to forget or marginalize. Gaiman takes these experiences and puts them front and centre.
The sense of dread builds palpably during Ursula’s reign of terror. The fact that the narrator obviously survives into adulthood doesn’t undercut the tension; we don’t know how, or what price he pays. We don’t know if he vanquishes Ursula or if he has merely run away, only to have to face her now, as an adult. Gaiman demonstrates the power that flashback has to frame and provide context for a story, even while it keeps the ultimate resolution ambiguous right until the end. It’s a very well-plotted, exquisitely crafted endeavour.
I think it would be a mistake to call this a children’s novel, or a young adult novel, just because of the age of the narrator. It’s no such thing. It is, perhaps, a novel that could appeal to a certain age and attitude of young adult. Simply put, though, The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t about childhood; it’s about the relationship we, as adults, have with our childhoods. That’s why the story is told as a flashback, bookended by the narrator’s contemporary presence at the Hempstocks’ farm. That’s why the emphasis is on memory. The complex, ever-changing solution to the unbalanced equation of identity, of what it means to be “a child” or “an adult”, is at the centre of this book.
It’s there in the very first sentence. The adult narrator describes his presence at the funeral: “I wore a black suite and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult.” Despite being grown and having kids of his own, he still feels like wearing such adult clothing marks him as an imposter. This theme, that we never really “grow up”, continues throughout the book. It’s the reason the narrator can’t seek help from any adults (aside from the Hempstocks, who are exempt):
Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.
The idea that you “grow up” and somehow life gets easier is a lie. Childhood has its pitfalls, and I quite like being able to eat as much candy as I want and stay up as late as I want. But getting older doesn’t mean I’m any more sure of what I’m doing than I was when I was seven. If anything, I’m even less sure: the awesome reality of the obstacles in my way is now a solid, dense wall instead of the diaphanous, hardly remarkable fence that it was back in the day. We all have dreams, but those dreams are far less tangible—and therefore much easier to entertain—when you haven’t paid for years of schooling to make them happen. When the narrator says, at one point, that “Adults follow paths. Children explore”, he means more than just walking. There is a sense of playfulness that most of us have as children, and that playfulness tends to atrophy as we get older. I think some of the happiest, most well-adjusted adults are those who manage to hold on to that playfulness even as they nurture the maturity and self-control that age hopefully conveys.
So, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is decidedly an adult novel about childhood. Gaiman plays with the conceits of having a child narrator. His prose, although always packed with interesting turns of phrase and dazzling description, has the spare, lean quality of someone recounting a fuzzy, faded memory. It meanders slightly and is sparse in some areas. I really enjoyed the act of reading this book for these reasons—a lot of books about childhood have an intrusive, adult narrator who tends to inject so much of their own hindsight into proceedings.
And then there’s the Hempstocks: Old Mrs., Ginnie, and Lettie, in order of generations. It’s significant that the Hempstocks are named while the narrator and his parents are not. They are that important, not just to the story but to this entire world. They seem to be, at least as far as we know, unique entities—not quite gods, but something more than human. Hence the clipped references to world-walking and reality-shaping, the all-too-on-the-nose “wormholes” and, of course, Lettie’s deceptive, eponymous ocean. Lettie appears to be a child but is also implied to be very old, once again emphasizing the notion that childhood and adulthood are more closely related and far less binary notions than we might believe.
If Ursula is the Big Bad Monster of the story, then the Hempstocks are definitely the Forces for Good. They are just comforting in the way that only a knowledgeable grandmother like Old Mrs. Hempstock can be. When the narrator finally makes it to them for help, you just want to run into their embrace with him, relieved in the knowledge that you are, at least for the moment, safe. They bear much resemblance to many of Gaiman’s similar supernatural creations, such as certain gods from American Gods, or some of the beings who populate the world of the Sandman series. (For all we know, the Hempstocks are somewhere, out there, and have run into the Endless once or twice.)
I don’t want to get too far into spoiler territory discussing the climax of the book. I am very intrigued by the relative responsibility that the narrator and Lettie have for the narrator’s survival. In this battle, the narrator is hopelessly outmatched: he has none of the knowledge, none of the power that the Hempstocks can bring to bear against these other beings. The only thing he can trade on is himself—his life, his soul. And perhaps the willingness to sacrifice that is the proof that he is worthy of being saved….
Anyway, I suppose you should take all this with a grain of salt, since I can’t deny being an avid fan of Neil Gaiman’s work. I love all of his books and stories that I’ve read, even those I didn’t feel that I could give five stars to. In this case, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is worth those five stars. I should mention, I suppose, that the short length doesn’t bother me. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I found out it wasn’t four- or five-hundred pages. But it’s just the right length for the story that Gaiman tells, and with any book, such serendipity of writing and editing is a gift.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane fulfils all my expectations, but in utterly surprising ways. Gaiman fills a comfortable niche in the intersection between modern-day fantasy and literary fiction, providing a story that is enchanting and deep but also very familiar. The fantastic, here, is simply a dimension to our lives that is particularly prominent in childhood. Exposing it in effect exposes the changes that we undergo during that tenuous transition into the adult world. Uncovering it helps uncover those memories we have lost, or chosen to forget, simply because it’s easier. The best thing that a book can do for me is make me think. The Ocean at the End of the Lane has given me a lot to think about when it comes to childhood, memories, and our own uncertain past.