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.