Neil Gaiman is best known for his tales of the bizarre (American Gods, Neverwhere, Stardust etc.) all of which has earned him an incredibly loyal fan base. I found his short story collection Fragile Things to be particularly powerful, particularly The Problem of Susan which raised spine-tingling possibilities for the future fate of Susan Pevensie after the end of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. I also read Anansi Boys and although I enjoyed it, I had the disconcerting feeling that its protagonist was a reworking of Douglas Adams’ Arthur Dent. With The Ocean at the End of the Lane however, I have found a book to truly fall in love with.
This novel won the Goodreads Readers’ Choice Award last year and had a rapturous public response although the critical one was rather more muted. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a novel to truly respond to, it reminded me of Le Petit Prince in its portrait of childish awareness of the limitations of adults. It was a dreamy retrospective on childhood and childhood fears. Despite its supernatural turn, there was a definite feel of the autobiographical in Gaiman’s description of the house and countryside surrounding it. Memory is a huge theme of the book, the nameless narrator returns as an adult for a family funeral and stops to visit the pond he played near as a child, the one his friend Lettie Hempstock used to call an ocean. As he sits, he looks at the tiny pond and wonders, remembering back to the summer when he was seven. Lettie was eleven but it is not clear precisely how long she had been eleven for.
I am probably one of the least sceptical readers that one could ever come across, I am always willing to suspend disbelief and follow the narrative but this novel does not just describe events. Like one of the Hempstocks himself, Gaiman seems to summon the memories up as if they were mine too, but then in writing about childhood memories, he is addressing a common experience. We all grow up, move on and put away childish things, but as Gaiman’s narrator says, although these memories may ‘be obscured and covered beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet they are never lost for good.’ In rediscovering past memories, we rediscover our past, smaller selves and the emotion and power of that feeling is what Gaiman captures here.
Many of the more poignant moments come from Gaiman’s more everyday reminiscences, like the narrator’s memory of his seventh birthday party when nobody came, with the ‘fifteen empty folding chairs’ signalling his unfortunate friendless state. His family are in financial difficulties, so the boy is turfed out of his bedroom with the sink ‘just my size’ to go and share with his sister so that they can take in lodgers. One of them was an opal miner who ran over the boy’s kitten upon arrival and a few months later stole the family car and gassed himself in a field near the Hempstock’s farm. From there on, events shift and take on a sinister turn.
The boy is a fearful child, he prefers to sleep with the door open, he is afraid of his father’s raised voice. Gaiman conjures that vulnerability of childhood, that awareness without understanding. While on the one hand, dark and ancient powers stir in their sleep, on the other the darkness in a moody parent strikes an equal terror in the heart. An unlucky encounter with something particularly unpleasant while visiting with Lettie leads to a narrow escape for the boy … or so it seems. Enter Ursula Monkton, new nanny to the boy and his sister.
Like Pan’s Labyrinth, the veracity of his recollections is ambiguous. Mrs Hempstock tells him firmly that no two people standing together will remember the same thing. There is just a possibility that the fairytale wrapped a bandage over the more damaging reality. The scene where the boy’s father tries to drown him in a bathtub is raw and upsetting in its violence and its realism. Towards the end of the novel, the boy’s sister puts forth an alternative theory about what became of their nanny. The Hempstocks demonstrate that memory can be literally manipulated, but all too often that is something that people do for themselves.
The boy is a fanciful child, constantly reading his Enid Blyton-esque adventure stories. He has a powerful imagination and he is an unreliable narrator, aware that there are gaps in his memory. The adult man and the boy have distinct voices – I wanted to cuddle the boy in his childish fear but the man seemed just as lost as his younger self and as the boy pointed out, there is nobody to comfort you as an adult. Lettie explains to the boy, no adults ever really know what they are doing – that appearance of certainty, of rules is a mere façade. Adulthood is never granted, it has to be fought for and earned.
I found Gaiman’s fairytale world utterly entrancing, the Hempstock family with its maid, mother and crone who may or may not have been around for the Big Bang kept the more fantastical elements of the story earthbound. The ocean itself and its gateway to the universe is breathtaking. The boy sees the world like a cake with its many layers, with himself resting merely on the icing on top. It is interesting to imagine this is as a Young Adult read and it is full of food for rich thought but coming to it as an adult now myself, I felt I better understood the novel’s wistful pang for childhood, its sympathetic understanding for adults’ failings. When the boy stands in the fairy ring and speaks to his father, he seems to be speaking for all children who have ever been let down by a parent. We often lack the words to explain ourselves when we are children, but we know what it is that we feel and those feelings are never lost.
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Published by HarperCollins on June 3rd 2014
Genres: Fiction, Coming of Age, Literary, General
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