THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE
A novel by Neil Gaiman www.NeilGaiman.com
William Morrow, 178 pages
Hardcover, $25.99 www.harpercollins.com
Can you recall the day you learned that Santa Claus was not real? (Or the Easter Bunny, Great Pumpkin, Tooth Fairy, etc. . .?) You probably heard that via an older brother or sister, a favorite cousin, a respected friend (probably a few years older than you), or even your parents. Because you looked up to the person that gave you the sad but true news, you made a conscious decision to change your beliefs. You wanted to be more like that person because you respected and admired them, and so you changed your mindset. You moved away from your childhood reality and a step closer to adult responsibility, just one of many formative steps in your life until you came to the place where you are today. Every one of those steps was your decision, and each time the cost was the abandonment of some innocent and carefree childhood perceptions. Eventually, we reach the point where we can no longer recall those early beliefs from the days when we were so very young and naïve.
Neil Gaiman has the tools to help you remember. Whether or not that is his intention, during the course of his skilled story-telling those memories may come back to the surface during your reading of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE. As you read further and become immersed in Gaiman’s story, maybe some of those recollections may occur for you. I recall a short time pre-kindergarten (and a little bit later, prompted by a Halloween incident) when I thought that witches might be real. They either lived in our neighborhood in disguise during daylight hours or stayed hidden deep in the woods, occasionally straying closer to civilization during moonless nights.
During your early days, were there adults that you gravitated to because they seemed like kindly mentors of the Gandalf variety, or that you avoided because they seemed evil like Mephistopholes and would corrupt you or hurt you? Children often proscribe mystical abilities to those adults whose characters they are trying to discern. So, is the main character in THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE simply recalling those early misguided perceptions of reality, or is he relating events as they actually happened? The deeper you read into this short novel, the more whimsical and unreal that past history becomes. It’s highly engrossing and some early reviewers relate how they read the novel in one sitting, unable to put it aside.
Some details about the novel that struck me as odd during the early chapters now seem as if they were deliberate. Gaiman’s narrator, an adult male who was seven years old during the 1960’s, never reveals his name. As he tells his memoirs, none of the other characters address him by name and speak directly to him without preface. The novel begins with the narrator attending a funeral in Sussex (England), the town where he grew up. We can only assume it is one of his parents as he is called on to make a memorial statement. Rather than distance the reader from the narrator, it actually brings him closer. Instead of dropping a nametag on the story-teller, it transforms him into more of a universal Everyman in whom we can all find some traits in common.
As our book guide follows up the funeral with a walking tour of his former residence and local haunts, the memories come back and he recalls all the details of his character-building experience at the tender age of seven. THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE concludes with a tender epilogue relating what he discovers during that return visit. It’s an effective framing device which captures this moment of young discovery and surrounds it with a shell of older, mature rationality/reality.
The main character is a lonely, shy youth sheltered from frequent companionship by the remote country estate where he resides and also through his introverted nature. He does not make friends easily, and becomes a voracious reader choosing to occupy his leisure moments in fantasy worlds. Following a trauma-inducing event involving the suicide of a renter at their home, he discovers a quaint country farm of dreamy landscapes and meets the friendly girl Lettie, an eleven year old who lives there. He later meets the rest of her family (mother and grandmother) maintaining the farm and develops a friendly relationship where he becomes their frequent visitor.
Lettie’s family seems to have wisdom beyond their years and unusual gifts as well. They are not witches in the traditional sense, but possess magical abilities. As events move forward the reader gets the feeling that they are of a different and immortal race and not from Earth proper. When Lettie is asked to obtain something from another dimension, she brings the young boy along for companionship, instructing him to hold her hand the entire time. During his journey to this dreamlike world with just enough similarities to ground it in reality, he loses his grip for a short while which results in another being using him as a portal to Earth. Soon after, the cross-dimensional traveler manifests as the new nanny at their residence, befriending his parents and younger sister but not earning the narrator’s trust.
The conflict arises as our narrator works to expose the nanny for who she really is. He escapes from her confines and enlists Lettie’s family to help him send her away. Every action has consequences and there are many to occur as Gaiman threads his magic through the story. It ended much too soon, and I was left wanting more. However, the ending is not an ambiguous one and much is resolved satisfactorily.
Another interesting theme that runs throughout THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is the superior wisdom of the female characters, especially Lettie’s family, and even the cruel nanny Ursula Monkton. The three prominent male characters (the narrator, his father, and the suicidal tenant) are all indecisive, self-centered, and failures to some degree or another. The only exceptions are the mother, who just seems too pre-occupied with her working career, and the trusting sister who is easily deceived simply because of her younger age.
Neil Gaiman has authored more than twenty books, including AMERICAN GODS and others for which he has earned many literary honors. He first shot to prominence as the writer/creator of the comic book fantasy SANDMAN for DC/Vertigo Comics. A native of England, he currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife (musician Amanda Palmer) and children.