The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fiction, fantasy, horror, magic, Neil Gaiman why must you give me all these thoughts and feels!?!
Rating: 6 out of 5 stars (yeah, I went there)
Summary: A young boy’s life is irrevocably changed when his parents’ lodger steals the family car and commits suicide at the end of the lane by the Hempstock farm. Going to visit the crime-scene with his father, he meets the Hempstock ladies, Old Mrs. Hempstock, Mrs. Hempstock and eleven-year-old Lettie Hempstock, who says the duck pond behind their home is really an ocean. Fantasy meets horror meets nostalgia and all the good things in between, this is Gaiman’s best adult work yet.
I have found the ultimate summer beach read for you, and not because it’s a frothy, frivolous tome perfect for the beach, but because you’re going to want to be near a body of water when you read this fabulous novel. Read it in the bath, read it on a dock, heck, read it over a boiling pot of water, just read it near some H20, be it still or foaming.
And if you can, take the opportunity to see Neil Gaiman on his very last tour (complete with signing). Sadly, all the tours I could go to in the tri-state vicinity were during the week, meaning I could not attend because such is the plight of a full-time freelance writer and I’M STILL NOT UPSET ABOUT IT OR ANYTHING. ::sobs quietly:: No, really, I’m fine I swear. ::blubbers some more::
Anyway, emotions aside, I could not recommend this book enough. It combines a fantasy story with some spatterings of horror and a whole lot of magic into one intriguing narrative with a fabulous frame story that will have you putting the novel down and just thinking. It will give you a serious book hangover. Which is just what I wanted.
It would be an understatement to say I was eagerly awaiting this novel, particularly since Gaiman’s last adult novel the American Gods spin-off Anansi Boys came out in 2006 and his latest full-length novel for children, The Graveyard Book was released in 2009. I spent the entirety of the night after I got my wisdom teeth out distracting myself from the pain with The Jungle Book inspired story about a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any Gaiman book (or comic for that matter) but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is just something special.
The story begins with our nameless narrator – now grown – as he inexorably is drawn to his childhood home and the duck pond at the Hempstock farm where he experienced a series of mind-boggling experiences. As he sits there his mind begins to wander away from this frame story and he remembers the suicide of the Opal Miner who lived in the attic of his house, a death which set off a series of events which prove to be dangerous to the seven-year-old, including the hiring of their nanny Ursula Monkton who is more deadly than anyone could possibly imagine.
Thankfully the kindly Hempstock family is there to help him out, from Old Mrs. Hempstock who seems to recall events that she should not be old enough to witness, the kindly Mrs. Hempstock and her daughter Lettie, who is only eleven but who our narrator thinks seems more like an adult than she has any right to be.
Through them we explore ideas of childhood, but more specifically our own memories. Why are our memories so faulty? How do people seeing the same event remember things differently? How is it that someone can remember an event but we can’t recall it at all, and if we can it’s only in brief flashes and feelings?
I have a specific memory of my older cousin mowing his parent’s lawn on a ride-on-mower when it tipped over and all the adults in the vicinity rushed over to help him. In my recollection of the event, he was on a hill far away from the rest of us, but everyone else insists that he was on flat land and it wasn’t as harrowing an experience as I remember. Meanwhile, my friend insist that in high school we went on a field trip to see The Return of the King in theatres, but even though they assure me I was there, I can’t recall a single moment of that day. The other three showings are a completely different story.
(These are the pathways the novel had my mind taking, so be prepared for a whole bunch of diversions.)
In direct correlation to the novel, did these things actually happen to our hapless lad or are his remembrances wrong because he’s remembering them as a child? I found myself wondering throughout the novel as the events unfolded, is what our narrator remembering real, or is he viewing the events through the lens of his childhood self, turning the nanny he distrusts into a force who seeks him harm and the kindly ladies next door into bonafide witches.
Don’t worry, you’ll get a definitive answer by the end of the frame story. Promise. But the whole thing could be viewed as a possible (if albeit fantastical way) in why memories function in the ways that they do. And in effect how the sights, sounds, smells and most importantly, tastes of our past are direct lines to our memories.
You also might want to pack a snack while reading.
Throughout the novel, our narrator also brings to mind several times the belief (at least in his child’s mind) that children are held in sway by adult figures and when facing off against a grown person a child could never win. Which is in direct opposition to all the books he read, in which children often best adult figures.
Which is also completely opposed to Lettie Hempstock’s view of the world, who explains to him that being an adult is merely a concept and that all adults are the same children they used to be on the inside, they just happen to have adult responsibilities and are trapped in an adult shell.
Neil Gaiman seriously messed with my mind this whole novel. He understands humanity, and he understands that inside we are all just scared children. Sometimes we just have to put on a brave, adult face in order to survive.
So when you head to the beach next time, or just plan to stick your feet in a creek, or float on a river, bring along The Ocean at the End of the Lane and your own childhood memories. Or at least what you can remember of them.
-Combines fantasy and horror in wonderful ways
-Explores childhood and memories through magical and intriguing plot points
-You might feel all the nostalgia about your own childhood
-That ending, those realizations, that last 40 pages of feels and wonderment!
-In summary: that ending
-Really? You want me to find fault with a fabulous Neil Gaiman novel? GTFO.
I’ve already ordered the signed, deluxe edition of The Ocean at the End of the Lane so expect an in-depth look at that gorgeousness illustrated by Dave McKean late next month. Possibly in a post about collecting tomes and possibly in a stand-alone post depending on how much I want to make love to it.