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.
Editor’s note: Marion’s review discusses some of the plot of this book in detail.
“… they told me only that they were no longer affluent, that we would all need to make sacrifices, and that what I would be sacrificing was my bedroom, the little room at the top of the stairs. I was sad; my bedroom has a tiny little yellow washbasin they had put in for me, just my size…”
More than the story, the dialogue or the descriptions, it was the tone of The Ocean at the End of the Lane that pierced my heart; the voice of the un-named narrator, looking back from the age of forty-seven at events that happened forty years before, and maintaining that distance while slipping effortlessly into the sensibility of a seven-year-old boy. Twenty years from now when high school students are being assigned this book in English classes, it will be for that reason; the skill of creating a voice and a set of memories, in a book about memory, and the power with which Gaiman evokes childhood.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Neil Gaiman said that the book is based upon an event in his life that he knows about but does not remember; a lodger at their house drove his car to the end of the lane and committed suicide, because of gambling debts. From that upsetting event Gaiman weaves a tale about other worlds and this one, about heroism and sacrifice, and about being an introverted child in the 1960s, a precocious child whose one love is books.
The book opens when a middle-aged man returns to England for a funeral. After the funeral he goes for a drive to clear his head, and without deliberately choosing to, ends up on the lane where the house he spent his childhood was. The house is long gone; torn down for newer construction, but the farm at the end of the lane, the Hempstock place, is still there. He begins to remember the year he turned seven, and met Lettie Hempstock, youngest of the three Hempstock women, the year his family started taking in lodgers, the year that things changed for him, although he doesn’t know it.
“The pond is next,” I thought. “I just have to go around this shed, and I’ll see it.”
I saw it and was oddly proud of myself, as if that one act of memory had blown away some of the cobwebs of the day.
His parents rent out his room to an opal miner, a huge, bluff man whose introduction to the household is that his taxi ran over the boy’s kitten and killed it. The opal miner brings him a huge, battle-scarred ginger tom to make up for the dead kitten, and none of the adults seems to see that this is not a reasonable exchange. Shortly after that the lodger’s car is found at the end of the lane. The boy and his father go to investigate with the constable, and the boy finds the dead man in the back seat, asphyxiated. The boy is stranded while the adults do their work, and Lettie Hempstock invites him into the farmhouse where she lives with her mother and grandmother. In one sense, they are typical farmwomen, although probably, in the 1960s, already a little old-fashioned. The boy soon comes to realize that they are something much more than that. Lettie insists that the pond in her back yard is an ocean, and while the boy is waiting for his father to take him home, Lettie finds a dead fish floating and there is a silver coin inside it. This seems like good luck to the boy, but Lettie is dubious.
Soon the Hempstock women, and the boy, realize that something more serious is going on. The miner’s death has created a portal for something to come into this world, something that does not belong here. Lettie goes to send it home, and takes the boy with her. In an unguarded moment, he becomes a portal himself, and the thing follows him into his home.
The Hempstock women are familiar Gaiman characters. We saw them, or a version of them, in Sandman, but here they are more developed and in a different aspect. Lettie says she is eleven, but she remembers Oliver Cromwell, and her grandmother can remember when the moon was made.
The boy’s battle with the entity that came back with him is terrifying, mostly because he is seven years old and powerless, not only against it but against the normal world of adults. The most horrifying scene in the book does not involve monsters or magic, but a scene in the bathroom with the boy’s father. Gaiman utilizes traditional folk magical tropes to good effect; the importance of naming, the safety of circles, the power of land. Because he’s Gaiman, he can’t ignore the power of language.
… In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, ‘be whole’ and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.
At seven, the boy is a young hero but a believable one. He is heroic twice, and both times end badly. The first time, trying to protect Lettie, he leaves himself open to invasion by the monster from the other world. The second time the consequences are worse, but not for him. He is an innocent and his innocence is a danger to himself and to those who are trying to help him. This is not a theme I run across that frequently in fantasy, where “innocents” are usually Wise Fools or the object of a quest, because they’ve been locked up somewhere, ready to be sacrificed. In this book, the pure hero is a seven year old boy who acts like a seven year old. That is surprisingly powerful.
I could nitpick a few things in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, particularly about the plot, if I wanted to. I don’t want to. I want to remember the boy reading anything he could get his hands on, even his mother’s old books like Pansy Saves the School, or the little boy reciting the words to a Gilbert and Sullivan song about hangovers, that he doesn’t even understand, as he stands in a fairy ring, alone and terrified — or even this brief and perfect description:
The bed shook as something landed on it, and then small feet padded up the blankets and a warm, furry presence pushed itself into my face and the kitten began, softly, to purr.
I may be letting Gaiman off too easy. Because of the very nature of the book, the blurry line between dream, memory and imagination, one of the most potentially affecting scenes of the book has to be approached obliquely. I think Gaiman succeeds, but I was aware that I was reading a book when I read that scene. I was not standing in the darkness with the boy and Lettie. The strength of this book though is not in the magical confrontation. It is the moving depiction of a childhood, a loss of innocence and a gaining of knowledge. We know it is the loss of innocence because at the end of the book, when the boy gets the little room at the top of the stairs back, it is no longer right, no longer his.
Lettie’s pond, by the way, is an ocean.
The end contains a lovely twist, and the hint of a happy ending for our narrator. The artist who wants to make people whole may leave Hempstock farm with the strength he needs to make himself whole. Granny Hempstock, or Mrs. Hempstock, or the three Hempstock women, whoever they are, will continue until the stars burn out, and probably beyond.
“When they leave, they leave bemused, uncertain of why they came, of what they have seen, of whether they had a good time or not.”
The best way for me to describe Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is in Gaiman’s own words. The quote is from a different book of his, American Gods, and he’s describing Rock City. I’ve been to Rock City, and the description fits, but it also fits my experience of The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Our middle-aged protagonist has returned home for a funeral. We don’t know the man’s name, though there’s an outside possibility it’s George. We don’t know who died, though it almost has to be one of his parents. He gets sidetracked, driving down the lane where he once lived, and where his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock lived with her mysterious mother and grandmother. As he revisits this place, memories come flooding back to him — memories of a series of strange events that happened to him, Lettie, and their families when he was seven.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book about childhood, a book about memory. To me, Gaiman’s exploration of memory and of the difference between child and adult perceptions is the best part of the book, and the part that will stick with me longest. Do we understand things better as a child, and lose our ability to see life’s magic (the good and the scary) as we get older? Or do we mythologize things we don’t understand as children and realize, as adults, that they were really quite mundane? Can it be both?
I have to second Marion’s description of the scariest scene in the book. Not least because this is something that has really happened to kids, and I can’t even imagine the mingled feelings of fear and betrayal it must evoke as it’s happening.
On the whole, however, I confess to being a little disappointed by The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I can’t even quite put my finger on why, other than to point to the Rock City quote, or to say that I wanted it to blow my mind, and instead it just left me with a feeling of quiet sadness. And maybe that was the intent. Or maybe it’s too short, or maybe I just read it at the wrong point in my life, and at some past moment or some future moment it would have shaken my world. But please, don’t take my word as the last one; it’s definitely thought-provoking and worth a read.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is deceptively short and simple, but at the same time this book has evoked conflicting feelings of wonder and loss. I am haunted by the nightmarish terrors of childhood seen through the eyes of the unnamed narrator of the book, and yet the knowledge that, as we grow older, we also lose some clarity of vision and understanding. This is a fairy tale-like book that’s left me thoughtful and a little disturbed.
There’s not much I can say about Neil Gaiman’s 2013 The Ocean at the End of the Lane that hasn’t already been said far more eloquently by other reviewers. As I read their reviews, I kept nodding at each point, including the precise quotes they included. And with the massive readership that Gaiman has, he hardly needs any further praise. Although I’ve been late to the party, in the last year I’ve read Stardust, The Graveyard Book, and the entire 75-volume SANDMAN series. Initially I was skeptical that he could be as skillful and compelling a writer as the hype would suggest, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this time people are right. This year I also got the audiobooks of all his books, and his readings of Stardust and The Ocean at the End of the Lane are just perfect. He is a natural born storyteller and narrator, and knows his own material better than anyone else possibly could. I thought nothing could top that, but the full-cast production of The Graveyard Book is fantastic. His books are just perfect for audio, with their haunting imagery, relatively uncomplicated plots (I haven’t read American Gods yet, granted), and effortless prose.
So this time I won’t bother to describe the plot of this book. Suffice to say that it explores the terrors and wonders of a lonely childhood in the Sussex countryside, a mysterious trio of women neighbors who will be very familiar to Gaiman fans, and some very strange, frightening, and dream-like events that befell the adult narrator as a 7-year-old. There are numerous insights scattered throughout the story that made me pause for reflection, thoughts so distinct and universal that ring true, particularly to those whose childhoods centered more on the imaginary world of books and solitude. This resonated so strongly with me that it was reassuring to see other readers responding similarly. Gaiman clearly tapped his own childhood for inspiration, the only difference being that he can recapture the magic perspective of childhood innocence and certitude that most adults have long become disconnected from.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane conjures all kinds of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that you may not have experienced since childhood. It’s quite a remarkable achievement for someone like me who feels like our complex, jaded, superficial and predatory world can easily crush any childlike innocence with a flick of its cruel talons. And yet there is hope and terrors to be found in Gaiman’s books that do not rely on flashy action or gore, but rather gentle humor mixed with psychological landscapes much like dreams. The brevity of the book may have caused some readers to feel like the ideas were not fully developed, but like the infinite ocean at the end of the lane, you can discover the whole universe in a duck pond if you just look at it with the right perspective.