Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Neil Gaiman is a writer out of time. Intentionally or not, he speaks like someone from another, earlier age. Not only does he trade in stories which disregard the modern boundary between the fantastic and the real, but he fills his pages with a voice rich in ancient echoes. It is for precisely these reasons that, in years to come, we may consider this novel his quintessential work.
The central story is framed by the reminiscence of a middle-aged man who has returned home to Sussex, England for a funeral. After the service, he drives past his childhood home, to the bottom of the lane, to the farm and pond which stir his memory. Initially, I was a little put off by the structure, thinking the story strong enough to have stood on its own. Gaiman is not one to waste anything in his fiction, though, and uses his “Epilogue” to close the book with a sort of wistful hope. Indeed, the novel would lose a great deal of its poetry and magic if the adult story didn’t serve to contrast the childhood happenings.
The lyrical efficiency of Gaiman’s writing is ultimately what makes this book work. In the hands of another author, this easily could have become a Goonie-esque, kid-centered adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Goonies (Hey, you guuuyyys!), but The Ocean at The End of the Lane has so much say about trust and healing and hope, much more than old One-Eyed Willie could ever handle.
“I was not scared, though, and I could not have told you why I was not scared. I trusted Lettie, just as I had trusted her when we had gone in search of the flapping thing beneath the orange sky. I believed in her, and that meant I would come to no harm while I was with her. I knew it in the way I knew that grass was green, that roses had sharp, woody thorns, that breakfast cereal was sweet.” (p. 115).
Gaiman’s narrator speaks with the wonderful certainty of childhood, but also with the desperate confusion of having that certainty removed. Even in the most ethereal parts of the story, there is something comforting in his tone. The captured emotions represent universal truths of childhood and these surpass the particulars of the plot.
“They were not shadows any longer, not here, not in this place. They were all-too-real, and they landed in the darkness, just beyond the golden glow of the ground. They landed in the air and in trees, and they shuffled forward, as close as they could get to the golden ground of the Hempstock’s farm. They were huge–each of them was much bigger than I was.
I would have been hard-pressed to describe their faces, though. I could see them, look at them, take in every feature, but the moment I looked away they were gone, and there was nothing in my mind where the hunger birds had been but tearing beaks and talons, or wriggling tentacles, or hairy, chitinous mandibles. I could not keep their true faces in my head. When I turned away the only knowledge I retained was that they had been looking directly at me, and that they were ravenous.” (p. 153).
The malevolent Ursula Monkton, who appears in the main character’s home and begins manipulating his family was of particular interest to me. Her supernatural origins aside, she represents the kind of outside force which can subtly unravel an otherwise peaceful (though not perfect) situation. Not only could I sympathize with the child narrator’s inability to understand her power, but I also saw myself in the adults’ simple-minded blindness. This book is magic and fantasy used to its greatest end. Because none of us have experienced these particular events, we can all relate to them. The sorcery at work becomes a palatable metaphor for our own lives without reducing either the novel or the reader to base pedantry.
This is a wonderful book, but make no mistake, it is dark in places. There were sections which I found difficult to read because of the brutality and callousness shown. They were not, however, without merit. As I said, Gaiman wastes nothing in his writing and these instances should not be mistaken for sensationalism. The Ocean at the End of the Lane represents a master of both fiction and storytelling (which are not the same thing) at the very height of his craft.