As promised, my first review, of Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane."
Hardcover, 178 pages
Publication: June 18th, 2013
Format Read: Published Copy
“I’m going to tell you something important. 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. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
- Neil Gaiman, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”
Lately, I’ve been finding something special in YA books. Maybe that’s because now, in my early twenties, I want to understand what it meant that I was a child once, and what it means to me now. That’s why so many of us read these books, isn’t it, to relive what we would otherwise forget. Still, no matter how much I vicariously enjoy being a young adult through these books, there’s no getting away from the fact that I’m are always experiencing it here, now, as myself. And so there’s always a bittersweet taste to these books, an ache that I can never fully escape.
It is this gap between what we once were and what we are. And it is the emptiness in between, filled with what we imagine ourselves to be. That is the space measured out across the pages of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. That is the ground on which it stands.
The book opens with a funeral. The narrator, a grown man, returns to his old hometown to search for the lost places of his childhood. Arriving at a strange but familiar farm, a conversation with a figure from his past reignites lost memories of his childhood, and the main arc of the story begins. We go back decades with him, to a summer whose relative peace is suddenly broken the suicide of a lodger, leading him to befriend the Hempstocks - Lettie Hempstock, Mrs. Hempstock, and Old Mrs. Hempstock, a strange and lovely family of women who, we can immediately tell, are much more than they appear. Soon after, strange dreams and stranger happenings begin to invade the waking world, and the narrator must travel with Lettie to another reality and confront an ancient power. But when he returns, he finds that this force has followed him back. He must fight for his life and for his family, and try to return his life to the way it was – only to realize that he will never truly be able to return.
The story moves effortlessly from light to shadow, fear to delight, and, like the best fantasy, the terror of one moment accentuates the wonder of the next. The thrill of a secret, backyard hiding place, and the beauty of the still-wild English countryside shine just as brightly in this young boy’s mind as true magic or a walk between the worlds. Gaiman has often said that he wrote this book for his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, who doesn’t like fantasy stories. That may sound surprising given the plot, but the real star here is not the fantasy elements of the story itself, it’s the curious young boy who discovers it all. It’s what he learns of family, of friendship, and of himself.
Throughout all of the narrator’s adventures, the first person narration carries the story with style and grace. Gaiman’s young adult works, such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, have already demonstrated his talent for giving reality to a child’s world, for making it rich and meaningful without ever condescending, a talent that is on full display here. For this is not just the story of a child - this is the story of a child as remembered by the adult that he will become. The narration floats between the decades: one moment, we are completely focused on the beauty of the English countryside, and in the next we see how they are overwhelmed by the city decades later. One moment we are comfortably in the world of the child, and the next, we pull back to the view of an adult, amazed at his own memories. The story itself is more than a memory, it is a reliving, and one that changes the teller as it is told.
The real story of The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t about little girls as old as the universe, or backyard ponds filled with an endless ocean. It isn’t about magic or true names, about the portals between the worlds - although all of these are present are course, lovingly crafted and vividly realized. The real story of the novel is the transformation of a very ordinary yet quietly heroic child into a very ordinary yet quietly heroic adult. It is about the end of one way of living in the world and the birth of another, by way of a thousand smaller deaths, an endless stream of little tragedies. It is strange and sad and deeply beautiful to watch. The supernatural horror the narrator confronts shapes itself in the most ordinary pains of growing up – the violence of a parent, the loss of the freedom to run and to play, and the absence of imagination itself. Eventually, the childhood terrors of yesterday become the banal reality of adulthood, and all the magic fades into dim memories.
In the end, the book end just where it began: with the narrator back in the present, his memories already beginning to dissipate, soon to forget that any of this ever too place. What happened to that child may have been lost to memory, but we know that something deeper will remain with him long after the words and the faces have faded away, just as we know that something will remain with us. And so we wish him well, all of us readers, as we sigh, stretch, and close the book.