Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Headline 2014 (2013)
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.
— Shakespeare: Hamlet
Like all good fantasy books, what makes this novel outstanding is not so much the magic (of which there is enough to sate the most avid of fans) but the essential truths that it contains: of human nature, of joy and pain, of choices and consequences, of life and of death. It strongly evokes what it’s like to be a child trying to make sense of an adult world, learning through books and above all through bitter experience. My main criterion when judging a performance, a work of art or a book is: Would I want to experience it again? In this case the answer is unhesitatingly Yes! And why? Because it is life-affirming; while conversely — and, seemingly, perversely — affirming that the inevitable consequence of life is death.
I confess I shall be hard pushed to mention everything that struck me as I read this, so exquisite was the underlay below the equally rich surface details. The unnamed narrator has been attending a funeral in Sussex — for his father, one soon realises — and afterwards drives off to the site of the former family home, and then on to a farm, curious about the pond that he remembers being there. It instantly brings back childhood memories, specifically when he was around the age of seven; and what memories they turn out to be!
Death invades every aspect of this tale. The death of a father. A beloved kitten run over by a vehicle. A lodger who commits suicide. An elemental entity that seeks the child narrator’s death. An older child who appears to have died, unless she’s actually in Australia. Alongside Death is Time: a summer when everything is so much more vivid than what happened yesterday or last week or a few months or years ago; a family of three generations whose age is extremely hard to gauge; an entity who seems to have emerged through a crack in the fabric of time; times past which seemingly have become times forgotten.
And Space is another paradox explored here. How can a farmyard pond be conceived as an ‘ocean’? How can one small brain contain so many memories but not remember having visited a specific place more than once? How can aspects of our world — earth and grass, trees, a fox, the night sky — be consumed to reveal a void, “a perfect nothing” or “pulsing nothingness” behind them?
You will have gathered that I’m trying very hard not to outline the plot or offer spoilers or hint at the ending to this haunting novel. To be honest, it’s impossible to provide firm answers let alone conclusions to the mysteries it touches on, just like it’s impossible to make a rope out of sand or to empty the sea with a sieve. But the very act of trying to give voice to these notions is what gives The Ocean at the End of the Lane its power.
What I can say is that this fantasy is semi-autobiographical, but told in such a way that it can also be about each and every reader. In a question-and-answer section at the end of this edition Neil Gaiman sketches in how his own life experiences inform portions of this novel. Both protagonist and author grew up in Sussex, and both knew overseas lodgers who had committed suicide in the same manner. In adulthood both attended a father’s funeral (Neil’s father David died in 2009). Both had a companion who was for a time on the other side of the world (one who was physically in Australia, the other only reputedly). When young both were inveterate readers, consuming anything and everything with the printed word, and both had vivid imaginations.
As for what went on in those imaginations, we must surely all recognise similarities with our own experiences. The eternal mysteries of the adult world, rarely explained or — more likely — beyond our comprehension. The worry that an imperfectly grasped injunction or the breaking of a minor taboo can lead to fearful outcomes. The knowledge that most adults don’t believe you, especially when we give expression to our deepest fears. Above all, the fear of bogeys lurking in the wallpaper pattern, under the bed, behind the adult mask. Gaiman is a master at creating bogeymen and -women: “the man Jack” in The Graveyard Book, Messrs Croup and Vandemar in Neverwhere, the Other Mother in Coraline. Here it is the terrifying Ursula Monkton, a predator out of our nightmares intent on playing catspaw with the young protagonist. She is the witch out of every fairytale you’ve ever heard or read, and she’s waiting to throw this young Hansel into the oven whenever she is good and ready.
Against her — it — are the Hempstocks, in particular young — old — Lettie. Lettie is the childhood friend most of us wanted and so few of us got to have. If you read The Ocean at the End of the Lane you too can make her acquaintance and discover what it is about her that makes this modern fairytale simultaneously so human and yet so deliciously alien.