Neil Gaiman’s nightmarish The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a delight to read. At its most basic level, this was merely a story about a man recalling some forgotten memories from his youth. It was mere in the way that Hurricane Sandy was merely inclement weather or that World War II was merely a heated disagreement between nations. In the dreamworld of memories, facts can float about unanchored and drift into the confusing realm of the metaphysical. Add magic and lesser writers would find their story lost at sea. Gaiman’s solid writing kept this tale firmly moored on land.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins with a funeral, a dreary thing that children who survive into adulthood one day attend in increasing amounts the longer they live. This is reality. People die, cherished items are lost, and places are plowed over and rebuilt. The unnamed protagonist takes a joyride out into the countryside before heading over to the reception at his sister’s. We are not given the name of the person who died, though we can assume it is family. We are also not given the name of the protagonist, not even when family addresses him, all throughout the story. His joyride ends at the Hempstock farm. There he gazes out across a pond that a little girl he knew as a lonely boy used to call an ocean. Then the memories flood into him like that ocean at high tide.
The Hempstock are caretakers of this world, and when a suicide near their property at the edge of reality awakens an ancient power, Lettie Hempstock takes the boy along to seal the ancient power away. Unfortunately, the boy in his panic allows the ancient, misshapen creature of fabric to open a doorway into his world through his foot. From there she takes on human form and begins to terrorize him while establishing a new reality for her own purposes.
Seven year olds don’t usually make for riveting protagonists, but this boy is aided by adult recollection which gives us adult perspective while also revealing a glimpse into the magical world of children and what scares them. Gaiman uses copious descriptions of the senses to root the story in reality, as if he scryed this story through a crystal ball and jotted down his observations. Scents, sights, and textures are recollected in full detail as the adult boy walks through his memories. These scenes serve to augment the fantastical since so much of the story bends reality by the end. From the funeral to the death of a pet to sibling rivalries to the financial troubles of his parents, the story is woven solidly in the past. We see how terrible the adult world can seem to a child long before the ancient creature, now in the form of Ursula his nanny, begins to fill the boy’s world with nightmares as she unravels his reality.
Fans of high fantasy who like their stories told straightly may not enjoy this work of fiction. There is magic, but it is told in a meandering way, like a child discovering new places to climb under and over. Evil is vanquished, but not in the traditional ways. Gaiman seems to live on the borders of the dreamworld and gives us through his writing peeks into what we leave behind in sleep. This trip down nostalgia lane soon becomes a tale of horror, told through beautiful, surreal words. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is expertly written with provocative imagery and observations. I found myself riveted from beginning to end.
Release Date: June 18, 2013 (USA)
ISBNs: 0062255657 (9780062255655)
Publisher: William Morrow
Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (alcohol with meals)
Language: 1 (mild)
Sexuality: 4 (Naughty Nanny entertains Daddy)
Violence: 2 (There’s a suicide, bird things that eat the world, and a fair amount of peril)