by Bridget O’Flynn
The world of Neil Gaiman is a dark one. He regularly and skilfully employs the themes of desperation, danger and deception in his novels. Sheer terror can be found in the lines and spaces of every page. And, if you thought that this master of the craft might have grown a little rusty in the time since the release of his last adult novel (Anansi Boys, 2005), you, I am pleased to report, will be proven wrong.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane does not disappoint.
The story begins in the present, with our narrator returning to his childhood home for a family funeral and unearthing while there a series of events from 40 years ago that are probably best left forgotten. As he recalls the excitements of these events, we are thrown into his past. We meet the three Hempstock women, whom he enlisted in his youth to help him unravel certain mysteries. (Gaiman aficionados will relish speculating about whether or not this Hempstock clan can be tied to Stardust’s Daisy Hempstock or The Graveyard Book’s Liza Hempstock.)
The Hempstock women are charming and peculiar in the way that only Gaiman characters can be – the eldest insists that she can remember the Big Bang – but none more so than the youngest, Lettie. Charismatic and willful, she becomes our narrator’s closest companion in the fight against corruption, greed and power – everything that is wrong with the adult world, in short.
Apparently emulating the peculiarities of her elders, Lettie claims that her duckpond is an ocean, thus providing us with one of the most important and thought-provoking elements of the book. While initially it is treated by the narrator as just a glorified pond at the end of the Hempstocks’ garden, allusions to the fact that it may be more than it seems are made throughout the novel. And by novel’s end, we’re certain that it is. The ‘pond’ is featured in an ending so poignant and heartrending that we’re left wanting to ask Lettie’s forgiveness for ever thinking that it could be anything less than her ocean.
The narrator-as-child’s realistic perspective on the adult world is the high point of the book. This child, shy, passive and unnaturally serious, is what makes the book a gem to read. While it surprised, initially, that Gaiman decided to write in first person – historically he has preferred (and perfected) the third – he pulls it off neatly, giving us a unique insight into understanding the world from the perspective of a seven-year-old.
Don’t let the youth of the central characters fool you, however. It is not a book for children and certainly not one meant for bedtime stories. And yet, in spite of who its target audience clearly is, The Ocean at the End of the Lane contains fewer of Gaiman’s narrative tropes – alcohol, swearing, sex – than previous efforts and more of the spirit of childhood.
More so than any of Gaiman’s other books, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an homage to childhood. The story is eloquent and simple, perfectly mirroring the essence and innocence of youth. But it is also, at times, complex. Even though our narrator must deal with ‘childish things’ like witches and spells, he takes on his problems with a deep, centered (almost adult) gravity that could have become comical in hands less nuanced than Gaiman’s.
As with so much of Gaiman’s writing, reaching the end of the book does not mean you have finished thinking about it. At one point, our narrator says, “Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.” The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, on the surface, a test of strength and friendship, loyalty and bravery. But, for one hazy, disconcerting moment, it’s just a little bit more – it is a book that will make you question everything about your childhood.
Quoteworthy: ‘“We don’t do spells,” she said. She sounded a little disappointed to admit it. “We’ll do recipes sometimes. But no spells or cantrips. Gran doesn’t hold with none of that. She says it’s common.”’ – Lettie Hempstock