The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

[Note: this review was written in November 2013 but I forgot to post it until now…such are my skills as a blogger.]

Finally a book review. Reading long, doorstop books means that I’ve been spending weeks reading without actually finishing a single book. Then in one weekend I decided to put a pause on my hefty reading and clear off my bedside table a bit. If you ask my boyfriend he will undoubtedly tell you that I am a compulsive tidier, as in ‘one who tidies’. Having half a dozen books cluttering up my bedside table, most of which were massive tomes over 500 pages, was beginning to drive me crazy. It was time for a cull, not just of my bedside table but also of my whole hoard of books. I decided to choose a few books to send away to new homes, books that had been bought on a whim and I could part with easily. First, however I wanted to finish reading a couple of the books.

And so last weekend while first visiting Hugh’s family in Shamley Green, I ended my habit of basking in the comforting effect of long, seemingly unfinishable books. I bit the bullet and finished reading a couple of books I had started and abandoned – one, The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith aka J. K. Rowling, I won’t be reviewing although I enjoyed it more than expected; the other I am reviewing today (if I ever stop my rambling). Both, however, are being sent off to new homes along with several other books. Although I have a massive personal library split between two continents, I do believe in periodically rooting out unnecessary titles and sending them off to new homes where they will be better loved.

Ok, enough preamble. Onto the review.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Released June 18, 2013 by Headline Publishing Group (an imprint of Hatchette UK)

Disclaimer: The fact that I am sending away my copy of this book does not mean that I did not enjoy it. I merely decided that I did not need to keep the hardback edition and will likely pick up the paperback later on.

I encountered this book at a very uncertain time in my life and found several potent and pertinent resonances to my current situation. Gaiman’s mystical tale is one that is steeped in nostalgia. The story opens with the familiar trope of an adult narrator’s return to the childhood home. Gaiman’s doesn’t linger in the present to allow his narrator to indulge in the bittersweet musings of which so many literary novelists are overly enamored. Instead he deftly maneuvers the text into memory, pausing briefly to appreciate the surprising tenacity of such foggy remembrances:

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.’ 6-7

The memories that are uncovered are quite extraordinary – not the sort of things you would expect a person to forget. As a child the narrator befriends a rather remarkable young girl named Lettie who lives down the road with her even more remarkable mother and grandmother. These women are ageless and mysterious and they poss magical powers. On their small farm there is a pond that is really an ocean and as the narrator becomes a part of their world, the dark side of their world begins seeping into his normal life. The story is perfectly endearing, but also perfectly strange. And it is this strangeness that lends Gaiman’s storytelling its power, lifting it from fairytale to something more.

The narrator is never named, which gives the story of his memories an unboundedness – these could be anyone’s memories or fantasies. For the magical and eerie events the narrator had forgotten for so many years are really, at their emotional core, the same experiences of every childhood as it begins to end. Gaiman’s little novel is so quaint and enchanting, imbued with a nostalgia that gives the story a dream-like quality; but it also contains vastness, presenting the reader with a narrative that tackles the very nature of memory and growing up. The narrator encounters monsters and magic, but he is really learning about the real world. And he is not just scared of the monsters in the story, but of growing up and living in a world with ugly people. Lettie, who possesses wisdom beyond her age, exposes the heart of the matter:

Oh, monsters are scared, ‘ said Lettie. ‘And as for grownups…’ She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, ‘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.’ 152

Gaiman leaves his readers in a haze of bittersweet emotion as our own childhood imaginings (or memories?) suddenly feel closer than ever. It’s a beautiful feeling and I am in awe of Gaiman’s curious, little creation for evoking such long forgotten emotions. In the end, the narrator’s musings expose the core of this small novel:

I looked back at the farmhouse in my rear-view mirror, and a trick of the light made it seem as if two moons hung in the sky above it, like a pair of eyes watching me from above: one moon perfectly full and round, the other, its win on the other side of the sky, a half-moon. […] I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an after-image, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk.’ 243

(Image via Amazon)

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