Neil Gaiman’s return to adult fiction in eight years is called The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Although it is heralded as a novel for adults, it is a fitting book even for young adults. His storytelling never excludes the young or the old, and after all, this is somewhat of a fairy tale, a grim sort of one.
The story begins when the unnamed narrator returns to Sussex for a funeral. He finds himself visiting his childhood scenes, especially the Hempstock farmhouse, where a girl named Lettie used to live with her mother and grandmother. They were a mysterious and extraordinary family. Lettie’s grandmother could make the moon full every night, and she had been alive long enough to have witnessed the Big Bang.
Rambling through the farm, he comes across the duck pond Lettie used to call the “Ocean.” When he tosses a hazelnut into its water, the ripples carry across his mind and he begins to remember his childhood past. He sits down by the ‘Ocean’ and recalls the magical and traumatic events that befell his seven-year-old self.
Forty years ago, when the narrator was 7 years old there was an incident which led to ancient evil powers being unleashed in the neighbourhood. The lodger at the boy’s house, who is an unlucky gambler, kills the narrator’s cat in an accident, and shortly thereafter kills himself in the family car. A malevolent spirit nanny named Ursula Monkton is stirred into existence as a result of the incident, and arrives at the boy’s house as the new lodger. The narrator recognises her as a monster but his father is beguiled by her, and other family members are equally deceived. His only hope is the powerful and good-hearted Hempstocks and their 11 year old (or maybe billion-year-old) Lettie.
The narrator lives in fear; he sleeps with the door open and the hallway light on. It reminds us of our own childhoods, when we were afraid of the dark, imagined figures lurking in corners ready to jump at us, and checked for monsters under the bed. He is often alone and no one shows up at his seventh birthday party.
The novel also portrays the vulnerability and defenselessness of a child, especially when his father kicks down the door of the bathroom, fills the tub with cold water and shoves him beneath the water. “I looked at him, at the intent expression on his face… He was wearing a light blue shirt and a maroon paisley tie. He pulled off his watch on its expandable strap, dropped it on the window ledge” – everything about that incident is vividly etched in the narrators mind. He clutches the maroon paisley tie, “gripping it for life… pulling up out of that frigid water.” He holds on to it tightly, so his father can’t push him into the water, and in his desperate attempts, he clamps his teeth into it, just below the knot. We not only see the scene in our imagination but we feel the terror, desperation and the helplessness.
Gaiman writes: “Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.” We see it happening through the narration of this traumatic childhood memory.
The narrator loses himself in the world of adventure and fantasy by reading books. It helps him escape from reality and find answers and consolation others can’t offer him. It sounds a lot like the real Gaiman: “I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.” References to C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which he got for his seventh birthday and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland quotes, suggest Gaiman’s inspiration from his own childhood. These were Neil’s childhood favourites and their influence on him is significantly noteworthy. “Books were safer than other people anyway.”
The boy’s friendship with the Hempstock family, grants him access to another world. He feels safe with them, Gaiman hints that it might even be the safest spot in the whole universe. It is apparent that the Hempstocks exist outside of time, and it is somewhat comforting for the protagonist to know that they are different from the rest. The battle between Lettie’s family and the malevolent forces transports us to a magical and dreamlike realm. Then, just like Gaiman’s Bod in The Graveyard Book, he grows up and loses his ability to cross over to that extraordinary world; the end of childhood magic with the loss of innocence.
Towards the end of the novel, the narrator drops into the ‘Ocean’ and in his mind, achieves a form of transcendent understanding: “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.”
The interwoven adult and child perspectives of the protagonist help him see how he experienced his past and how it affected him for the rest of his life. He even questions whether his adult life is truly worth the magical showdown. Gaiman does not show the act of growing up as something exciting and hopeful, he asks “how can you be happy in this world?” when you are constantly “questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life.” This reminded me of the same kind of disappointment expressed by Adam Young in Neil’s collaboration with Terry Pratchett – Good Omens.
I have been a Neil Gaiman fan since I was young, and reading this book as an adult didn’t make me feel like it was essentially an adult novel. Gaiman presents the tragedies of human reality and the brokenness of the characters through a fantastical narrative that is almost like a fairy tale. But as the adult protagonist in the novel observes, fairy tales aren’t for kids or grownups; they’re just stories. And within this story we see our own lost childhoods, which were never forgotten completely. The Ocean at the End of the Lane speaks to the child within the adult. There’s a sense of immortality in childhood and it lingers on somewhere within us even when we turn into fully grown adults, and Gaiman masterfully channels that childhood through the medium of fantasy for the invocation of wistful self-knowledge.