The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Published: William Morrow & Co., 2013
Awards Won: Locus Fantasy Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Mythopoeic and World Fantasy Awards
“Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.” ~goodreads.com
I am a fan of Neil Gaiman, so I happily anticipated reading this book when it came out, even more so when it was clearly well received by others. The main reason I delayed so long in reading it was the price (it was $12.99 for an e-book of less than 200 pages--it is a bit less now), and my fear that it was going to be a story drenched in existential dread and emptiness. On the second point, It really isn’t, and I’m happy that I didn’t let that fear deter me from finally reading it.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane exists in an interesting intersection between the innocence of a child’s perspective and the darkness of an adult’s fantasy story. I think it could be enjoyed by a child, with parental supervision (there is some disturbing content), but that it is targeting an adult audience. I feel like it would best be understood by an adult looking back at childhood, like the protagonist. I enjoyed that the story really was unequivocally a fantasy, not just using fantastical elements for the purpose of allegory or metaphor.The supernatural forces that were unleashed exposed the desires and flaws of the people around the protagonist, but their reactions and emotions felt grounded in reality. Thus, even though this is a book about immortals, interloping inhuman creatures, and an ocean that fits in a pond, there is still a relatable emotional core.
The protagonist as a young boy has a very open, naive view of a complicated and often bewildering world. His young, fluid sense of reality allows him to accept the magic that enters his life as easily as the non-magical events. One thing that I hadn’t really considered about a child’s reality is their isolation and relative helplessness. The protagonist has very little power over his circumstances, and his distress is often dismissed by those who do. It must be terrifying to a child to realize that the people who have life-and-death power over him are not necessarily worthy of his trust. However, though he is at the mercy of the adults in his life, he still does the best he can as he and the Hempstocks desperately try to right his world.
I felt like the novel had the beauty and simplicity of a fairy tale, but one that is in touch with modern sadness and cruelty. Some of the griefs of the protagonist’s childhood were very familiar to me, and so it was easy to see fragments of myself in him. This endeared him to me as a character, though I wonder if it will work as well for people with more recent childhoods-- the world has changed a lot in the past twenty years. I also loved the Hempstocks, and I think that the sense of safety and comfort they exuded helped to keep things from feeling too bleak. The short novel felt very balanced and self-contained from beginning to end, a lovely gem of a story to enjoy for a brief time. I don’t think there is a message that is easy to sum up, but there is plenty to think about. Out of all of it, I think my favorite line was from one of the Hempstocks, who tells the protagonist, “You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.” (p.142)
My Rating: 4/5
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a very short novel that tells of a young boy, through his memory as an adult. It feels to me like a book about childhood targeted to an adult audience. Though the protagonist is very young through most of the novel, he faces situations that are far darker and more frightening than one would expect a boy his age to handle. The story is an unusual fantasy, and the supernatural elements are all connected to the three Hempstock women. To me, it seemed like a modern fairy tale, though the tale’s grief and terror is balanced with some measure of safety and comfort. I enjoyed reading it, and I would recommend it to other fans of Gaiman’s work.