“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” – An Adult’s Journey Through Childhood
Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.
And much the same can be said of Neil Gaiman’sThe Ocean at the End of the Lane. Within the confines of the beautifully designed binding, there lies a truly unique story. Journeying from one cover to the next seemed to carry the reader through a story of more length and detail than I thought the small book could hold. It is a subtle story, and an eerie one; a cunning and witty tale, but also one of loss; of happiness and of terror, together.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been referred to as Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys. Reading other reviews, some readers gave points of disagreement: they said it felt more like a young adult, or even children’s novel. I completely disagree, though I can see where their sentiments come from: The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t a children’s novel – it IS childhood. All of the worries, the snipes, the terrors that can plague a child are felt in these pages, but it also opens passage to the wonders that only childhood knows.
Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep under the rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.
The story sets off from one of the most simultaneously real and unreal moments in a person’s life: the death of a relative –thisparadoxical moment when one is confronted with memories of a body bursting with life, and the impossible reality begins to sink in. Our adult narrator finds himself traveling back to the pond at the end of the lane, past the place where his childhood home once stood. He travels, without really knowing why, to the place where he had once befriended a young girl. This girl had helped him face some of the darkest fears any child may hold and opened his eyes to broad new possibilities; possibilities like an ocean residing in this young girl’s family pond, and grandmothers who remember the birth of the moon. The majority of the novel is composed of our narrator’s reminiscence of this childhood friend, LettieHempstock, and how her exciting and terrifying world of magic began to burrow its way into the normal, if not sad, life he had been living.
Gaiman develops beautifully intricate ties to ancient magics and lore, perhaps most notably in the suggested connection of the enigmatic Hempstock women to the triple-female pagan deity of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. At the same time, he also builds a very real sense of our own world and relationships. Readers may feel echoes of themselves in the thoughts of our narrator, who often finds “books… safer than people anyway.” We feel a strong empathy for this unnamed narrator who “was not happy as a child, although from time to time… was content.” He “lived in books more than… anywhere else.” We cannot help but develop a bond with him and really discover, as his adult self reminisces, who he is.
During the course of the story, impossible things become real and our narrator is forced to face true terrors, but the simplicity and openness of how and why they are revealed makes the reader question if these “impossibilities” are really so strange at all. Gaiman’s rich imagery creates a world where great jumps in imagination are made to fit in, as though hardly anything extraordinary has occurred. Thiseasy and elegantstyle of writing allows you to believe, for a moment, that a kindly old woman could really coax an ocean into the pond at the end of the lane.
Daniel Rositano is a copy editor and graphic design team member with River Ram Press, Executive Assistant at the Smithy Center for the Arts in Cooperstown, NY, and a freelance 3D modeler.