Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow (US) / Headline (UK)
Publication date: June 2013
Hardcover: 248 pages
THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is a fable that reshapes modern fantasy: moving, terrifying and elegiac – as pure as a dream, as delicate as a butterfly’s wing, as dangerous as a knife in the dark, from storytelling genius Neil Gaiman.
It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed – within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it.
His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did we get this book: Thea received a review copy from the US publisher / Ana bought her copy in the UK
Format (e- or p-): Print for both
Why did we read this book: Because we are shameless Gaiman fans, there was absolutely no doubt we’d read this as soon as possible.
A man returns to his childhood town in Sussex for a funeral, and finds himself drawn to the house at the end of the lane – the home of Lettie Hempstock, that funny girl who talked about funny things and claimed that the small pond in the back of her house was the Ocean. After forty years, he has forgotten everything about his childhood, but when he visits the Hempstock farm the memories wash over him like the cool waves of Lettie’s impossible Ocean. He remembers the day his parents started renting out his bedroom, and the South African opal miner who ran over his kitten, then later committed suicide in their family’s car. He remembers the ancient raggedy spirit (the flea), who is drawn to his town by the desperation of the miner’s death, who hitches a ride into the boy’s world as a worm in the sole of his foot. He remembers the horror of that spirit, who becomes known as Ursula Monkton, who threatens to kill him and destroy his family. Most of all, he remembers the Hempstock women – his friend Lettie, her mother, and grandmother – who are ancient, wise, and who help him against Ursula and her mischief, and the terrible things that come in her wake.
I always have a hard time starting off a review when it comes to books that I truly love.
I wanted to start this book with a quote, but it’s hard to select just one. Do I pick the first sad line from the first chapter, defining the nameless narrator’s isolation and childhood? (Nobody came to my seventh birthday party) (I lay on the bed and lost myself in the stories. I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyway.) Do I pick the quote when the eleven-year-old girl, Lettie, from the house at the end of the lane, takes our narrator into a strange place where they confront a gray raggedy monster? (Its face was ragged, and its eyes were deep holes in the fabric. There was nothing behind it, just a gray canvas mask, huger than I could have imagined, all ripped and torn, blowing in the gusts of storm wind.) Or how about that part when the young boy’s father does something terrible to his son in a fit of icy rage? (I was fully dressed. That was wrong. I had my sandals on. That was wrong. The bathwater was cold, so cold and so wrong.) Or any of the other haunting and terrifying and wonderful bits within The Ocean at the End of the Lane?
No. I’ll start with what needs to be said: The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a beautiful, unforgettable book. It’s a smaller story and a quieter one than I’ve come to expect from Neil Gaiman’s novels; certainly it doesn’t have the grandeur or scope of The Sandman or American Gods, nor does it possess the romantic fantasy of Stardust or the quirky wryness of Good Omens or Neverwhere.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is much more like Coraline, or the short stories in Fragile Things, Smoke and Mirrors, and Unnatural Creatures. This is a novel, and it’s a book meant for adults, but it’s actually a powerful, if slender, fable about childhood and memory and the painful process of losing and regrowing a heart as you grow up. This is how The Ocean at the End of the Lane makes you feel.
I loved this book. I loved it very much. I loved the simplistic writing style, narrated in the voice of our young seven year old protagonist. I loved the substance of the story, and its fantastical elements with its three Hempstead women, the terrifyingly wrong Ursula Monkton, and the frightful creatures that feast on misplaced fleas like Ursula. This is a horror fable that has been told before, with echoes of Gaiman’s other work (mythologies we’ve seen before, with Ursula-monsters like Coraline‘s Other Mother) – but even if the story is familiar, it’s the telling that is the magic.
I don’t think this is Neil Gaiman’s finest book, but it’s a damn good one. And I loved it very, very much.
Wholeheartedly recommended for readers young and old, for those who yearn for a simple story told with heartbreaking beauty. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of my notable reads of 2013, beyond any doubt, and without any hesitation.
What Thea said.
I am glad Thea covered the summary, what this book is about and some of its themes so that will give me some freedom to extrapolate on the latter as well as on the topic of author accessibility instead of repeating the same points. Neil Gaiman is one of most accessible writers out there – he is always on Twitter talking to people and I have attended three events lately (including one for this book) in which it became clear to me how much he engages his audience with kindness and openness. In the talk I attended 1 about The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he says this is probably his most personal book yet: it started as a short story written for his wife as an attempt to show himself to her. If the book is not exactly autobiographical (even though the event that sets things in motion in the story DID happen to his family), this is probably a book that is infused with Gaiman-ess. Many of the themes, the ideas, the world-building, the horror are very familiar and I can see HOW the writing of it and the final result are Gaiman himself and his favourite things.
Anyone well acquainted with Gaiman’s oeuvre knows he is a worldsmith as well as a wordsmith: he is a creator of mythologies and a fabulous writer. This is very obvious here, in this little book of wonders. The word created of Ocean is a world that are most reminiscent of the Sandman collection and of Coraline to me. The villain Ursula reminds of the Other Mother as much as the “ocean” itself reminded me of the Dreaming. Recurrent themes such as three Hempstock women (Three witches? The three Moirai? The Kindly Ones?) and the painful process of growing up and becoming are also present here.
But enough with the familiar, here is what is most distinctive about it:
One of the most striking things about Ocean is its framing device. The story is narrated by an (unnamed) adult as he remembers details of his forgotten childhood. The brilliance stems from how the author managed to capture childhood and innocence through the eyes of a grown-up. The voice is at turns mature in its narrative and childlike in its reaction to those memories. It’s incredible because this juxtaposition works brilliantly: just as one is about to get inescapably entangled in the horrors of the narrator’s childhood, one remembers he has survived it – sort of. And it’s also great because this is a story that is both about being a child and about being an adult. The former exists in the way that the narrator as a child experience powerlessness and fear in the face of unspeakable terrors; and the latter in the way that the story portrays adulthood as a fluid, ever-evolving process that is not unlike childhood.
And then there are the descriptions of events and things in the book. The description of the places, of nature and above of all, of the food prepared by the Hempstocks is out-of-this-world: sensual and honest. It was easy to feel the darkness, to hear the sounds of nature and to crave the meals shared. In that sense, this is one of the most grounded books I’ve had the pleasure of reading because it was so vivid.
I loved Ocean but I started out thinking that it was a little book of wonders. I’d like to recant that “little.” The more I think about it, the more reasons I find to not only love wholeheartedly it but to feel that there is unparalleled scope and grandeur in this more intimate, quiet story. Watch it as this makes its way into my top 10 of 2013.
‘Are you here to see Lettie?’ Mrs Hempstock asked.
‘Is she here?’ The idea surprised me. She had gone somewhere, hadn’t she? America?
The old woman shook her head. ‘I was just about to put the kettle on. Do you fancy a spot of tea?’
I hesitated. Then I said that, if she didn’t mind, I’d like it if she could point me towards the duckpond first.
I knew Lettie had had a funny name for it. I remembered that. ‘She called it the sea. Something like that.’
The old woman put the cloth down on the dresser. ‘Can’t drink the water from the sea, can you? Too salty. Like drinking life’s blood. Do you remember the way? You can get to it around the side of the house. Just follow the path.’
If you’d asked me an hour before, I would have said no, I did not remember the way. I do not even think I would have remembered Lettie Hempstock’s name. But standing in that hallway, it was all coming back to me. Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me. Had you told me that I was seven again, I might have half believed you, for a moment.
I walked into the farmyard. I went past the chicken coop, past the old barn and along the edge of the field, remembering where I was, and what was coming next, and exulting in the knowledge. Hazels lined the side of the meadow. I picked a handful of the green nuts, put them in my pocket.
The pond is next, I thought. I just have to go around this shed, and I’ll see it.
I saw it and felt oddly proud of myself, as if that one act of memory had blown away some of the cobwebs of the day.
The pond was smaller than I remembered. There was a little wooden shed on the far side, and, by the path, an ancient, heavy wood-and-metal bench. The peeling wooden slats had been painted green a few years ago. I sat on the bench, and stared at the reflection of the sky in the water, at the scum of duckweed at the edges, and the half-dozen lily pads. Every now and again I tossed a hazelnut into the middle of the pond, the pond that Lettie Hempstock had called …
It wasn’t the sea, was it?
She would be older than I am now, Lettie Hempstock. She was only a handful of years older than I was back then, for all her funny talk. She was eleven. I was … what was I? It was after the bad birthday party. I knew that. So I would have been seven.
I wondered if we had ever fallen in the water. Had I pushed her into the duckpond, that strange girl who lived in the farm at the very bottom of the lane? I remembered her being in the water. Perhaps she had pushed me in too.
Where did she go? America? No, Australia. That was it. Somewhere a long way away.
And it wasn’t the sea. It was the ocean.
Lettie Hempstock’s ocean.
Ana: 9 – Damn Near Perfect
Thea: 8 – Excellent
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- I feel it is important for me to note the above because when writing a review one’s biases must be disclosed ↩