The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I don’t know what possessed me to request The Ocean at the End of the Lane as a gift one Christmas many years ago since I seldom enjoy tales involving the supernatural. Nor do I often read what has been labelled ‘cross over fiction’  – books that can be read and enjoyed by adults and children alike.

I did enjoy reading it far more than I expected and would have given it a wholehearted endorsement but for one thing….

Gaiman relates his story through the eyes of an unnamed man who has returned to his hometown for a funeral and recalls events that began forty years earlier.

As a child he is a solitary figure with no friends (no-one turns up for his seventh birthday party), a fearful boy who sleeps with his bedroom door open and the hallway light on. His world is transformed the day his parents’ lodger kills himself in the family car, an event which enables a supernatural being to gain access to our world.

That day  is also significant for another reason. It is the boy’s first meeting with a young girl called Lettie Hempstock who lives in a house at the end of a lane with her mother and grandmother. The boy is captivated by them, especially when Lettie tells him that the pond behind her house, an expanse of “dark water spotted with duckweed and lily pads” is  really an ocean. But he isn’t too sure what to make of Old Mrs Hempstock. Could she really make the moon full every night and how could she have been alive long enough to have witnessed the Big Bang?

The trio of women turn out to have special powers that are needed when dangerous, malevolent forces begin to attack the boy and get into his house in the form of a nanny. The narrator is the only one in his family to suspect Ursula Monkton is not what she seems. She worms her way into the home, ingratiating herself with his sister and seducing his father, a situation which leads to a complete breakdown in the relationship between the boy and his father.

In one of the most memorable scenes, the boy’s father who had hitherto been a kindly man, turns violent, dumping the terrified child in a freezing bath and holding him under the water.  Worse is to come when the Hempstocks do battle with the dark forces, threatening them with annihilation if they do not return to their own world. The boy is saved but one of the women is sacrificed in the process.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a coming of age novel that deals with the loss of innocence and the disconnection between childhood and adulthood.  Gaiman reminds us of the vulnerability many children experience during childhood, times when terrors seemed to lurk around every corner and could only be assuaged by the comforting arms of parents and adults. But what if the very people you turn to for succour cannot be relied upon? Gaiman’s narrator comes to realise that adults are not always what they seem: “People kept pulling their faces off to reveal new faces beneath,” he observes at one point.

He reaches another epiphany of understanding when he enters Lettie’s “ocean” and is “reborn” into a life where he knows and understands everything.

I saw the world I had walked since my birth, and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.

I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.

Despite my normal scepticism I had been fully engaged by this story right up to this point. But then Gaiman destroys it in just a few sentences. As the boy is in the ocean he accepts what seems impossible – that candles can burn in water. Ok so far but what are we then to make of this:

I knew the peculiar crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time befoer the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind.

Or of this:

I understood it just as I understood Dark Matter, the material of the universe that makes up everything that must be there but we cannot find.

It’s one thing to accept that when an imaginative seven year old who loves books, describes his adventures we believe they are extraordinary.  But are we really meant to believe that the boy who thinks in terms of icing on birthday cakes is the same child as the one who fully comprehends  quantum physics and the nature of the universe?

This was however just one quibble and I’ll forgive Gaiman for this indiscretion because the rest of The Ocean at the End of the Lane was beautifully constructed and a joy to read. I’m not surprised it was voted Book of the Year in the 2013 British National Book Awards.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on May 16, 2018, in Book Reviews, British authors, science fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Lovely review. I read this book ages ago but remember really enjoying it! It is definitely out there and isn’t perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed its creativity and imagination.

  2. you should try Neverwhere, on the “Londod below”, great characters!!

  3. and the audio is fantastic – Gaiman narrates, wonderfully, his own books

  4. buriedinprint

    Heheh Well, I can see how that would have niggled you. He’s a writer I admire but one I haven’t read much of – and usually the less popular ones – so this one is a gap on my reading list. As I work my way through my backlog of BBC and Guardian Books’ podcasts, I was recently listening to an interview with him about the publication of his Norse Mythology and that one does sound quite wonderful (although not his own material of course) though perhaps not your cuppa either. I’ll be curious to see if you do try another and, if so, which one.

  5. I loved this book, so I’m glad you liked most of it! I do get annoyed when authors use a child narrator who doesn’t sound anything like a child. I don’t recall getting that sense with Gaiman but I can see your point. I also really liked Norse Mythology.

    • Writing in the voice of a child must be one of the most difficult aspects facing a novelist – it’s hard to erase all that adult knowledge.

  6. I’ve read this book and listened to the audio version as well numerous times. Neil Gaiman reads the story and I think it adds another layer of dimension to the book. The book is NOT him, but he put a lot of himself into this book. I watched an interview he did regarding this book. He wrote it for his wife, Amanda Palmer. The part about “the man and the car, ” that came from Neil Gaiman’s childhood! He was too young to understand what had happened to the man or why his family had to get a new car. And the Hempstocks show up in MANY of his books, like an Easter egg. 🙂

  7. Gaiman is an interesting writer, though I think sometimes the promise is greater than the delivery. In terms of the leap in knowledge of the young protagonist, I have wondered if this is intended to be interpreted quite literally. Gaiman is an avid fan of mythology, particularly the Norse myths, and there seems to me an overlap between the ‘ocean’ and the mythical well of knowledge that Odin drank from to achieve wisdom, which he ‘paid’ for by making a sacrifice of one eye. Similarly the three sisters may link to the three sisters said to live at the roots of the world tree Ygdrassil, one of which, Urd, was said to be the possessor of a well which may be linked to the mythical well of knowledge. I got the impression with Ocean that Gaiman was chanelling and reframing a bunch of myths – which he does to greatest effect with American Gods (which also places Odin dead centre) – weaving it into a more modern setting and making it more accessible for the younger generation.

  8. Hmm – I’ve had this on my TBR for ages, since I went through a Gaiman phase a few years ago, which sadly wore off pretty quickly after a couple of disappointing reads. I’m not sure whether your review has inspired me or made me even more reluctant. It sounds intriguing, but I do find seven-year-olds who understand the secrets of the universe a bit hard to swallow. Maybe I’m jealous of them… 😉

  9. I’ve never tried Gaiman. I’ll look out for him in the library…

  10. Judy Krueger

    Beautiful review. I loved this book and every other one I have read by Neil Gaiman. I would forgive him almost anything.

  11. I’ve never read any Gaiman but I think I would like him – although I take your point about the sudden jump in understanding the main character has. Perhaps it was some form of mystical enlightenment…

  12. As a long time Gaiman fan, I read this when it came out first and adored it (so naturally am going to claim credit for you reading it, hahaha).

    The thing I love about Gaiman is that he will try his hand at everything, so I always ask people who didn’t like book x to try Y, as it just might hit the spot.

  13. This is a surprising one for you but it seems to have gone down well.

  14. I read the beginning pages of this book a while ago… and then set it aside. Perhaps I should give it another go.

    Great review!

    • Please try again. It’s ok if you don’t like it (honest!). Gaiman writes in so many different styles and genres, I would hate for you to not find a thing you like. I am a bit of a fan, so let me know if you’d like alternative suggestions

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