William Morrow (2013); Hardcover, 178 pages.
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a novel of childhood and memory. It’s a story of magic, about the power of stories and how we face the darkness inside each of us. It’s about fear, and love, and death, and families. But, fundamentally, I hope, at its heart, it’s a novel about survival.” ~Neil Gaiman
that cover, the epigraph (a gorgeous intimation) followed by that title page (below), and then the first page that precedes the “prologue”—-and this is all you should need to want to read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (‘course, I go on).
The middle-aged male 1st person is never named and while the incidents told are autobiographical in nature, there is a sense of any middle-aged person and an unremembered magic of childhood within. The man returns for a funeral. The trip home to lay a person to rest escapes the nostalgic and instead steeps itself a deeper and more profound loss. It’s less melancholic, and more lonely—a loneliness of the matter-of-fact sort: human persons suffer, grow-up, leave things, bury them, lose them however tragically or no. There is no room for nostalgia because not all of childhood and growing up is sweetness. Therein plays a sad note for much of our fondest can be swaddled and buried with the most terrifying; and yet here are where we find our richest stories.
For the man drawn to return to his childhood home, he only needs the right place in time and a few magic words/objects: the pond Lettie Hempstock called an ocean. His memory begins with a birth date, his 7th birthday party; a time that marks the beginning of fearfulness and all that implies. The growing disillusionment as the “real” world (as an adult would call it) begins to intrude, crawling up through his foot and into his heart…
“I was no longer a small boy. I was seven. I had been fearless, but now I was such a frightened child” (51).
The boy is wonderfully complex—as he should, but you know how these things can go. He talks about how “whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible” (58) he goes away “into [his head], into a book.” He takes “cues” from books, lessons, advice, practical knowledge like alternate ways to exit old houses (77). However, he isn’t as brave as the adventurers in the books, not always know exactly what to do, as they seemed to (59). He needs a hand to hold, a bosom to bury his tears in, yet he also handles the worm-problem and drowning-incident rather well. The things we survive as a child and yet wonder how we will survive the now. The things we needed as a child and still do, however much we are to admit to the contrary.
The middle-aged man has become a bit of a wanderer, and he is drawn to a touching stone, a particular sense of home, family, friendship—and magic; possibility and explanation and things that just are fits in there.
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.
“Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?” (53)
The Ocean at the End is a bit adult story and child with a healthy dose of the mythic to transform them both. We wind down the lanes and through historic changes, details to solidify any accusations toward abstraction; adult concerns. Then there are the secrets lost somewhere within an adulthood, secrets having very much to do with other ways out of closets/wardrobes; of islands and ponds and smugglers and thieves and dangerous otherworldly folk.
Stories, like memories held within our earliest selves, are dangerous; the teller of these stories, especially so: “You were her way here, and it’s a dangerous thing to be a door” (110). It is a dangerous thing to be a door and the boy proves daring enough even as The Ocean at the End proves willing to negotiate the consequences: the chilling implications that reality is more than we’ve come to define it, before effecting another closure, sending the middle-aged man on back to his life at dusk. Remembering and forgetting have a purpose, as do the shape the experiences take. In thinking about Ursula, do the boy’s and his sister’s recollections differ all that much?
Gaiman writes less in the ambiguous to affect doubt or a question of blurring lines, but more in forthright perspective. There is no secret, no mystery of what is real or not. The boy is neither unreliable (a potential liar) or overly imaginative. What he is is very afraid and oft times alone and courageous with it. He is himself, in a world that is; and for all the remarks on change at the beginning, we understand by book’s end that the boy and the man are ever the same.
Recommendations: best effect: read in one sitting, not more than two sittings, even if you’ve a great memory;tone/mood/pace-building explains much of the success of the story on the reader. For fans of Neil Gaiman, of course, but also those unfamiliar with his work; all sexes/genders. Lovers of myth, of darker childhood tales, of short stories (or dislikers of short stories, the novel length should sate you). those fascinated by conversations on memory and identity.
from other reviews and the like:
“Let me be clear: This is decidedly a book for adults (and teens, in my opinion), despite the fact that much of the story being related transpired when the narrator was a child. Besides nudity (remember, it’s a print book, not a graphic novel, so it is whatever you imagine it to be), there are decidedly grown-up concepts in the book. Including a rather interesting discussion of whether grown-ups exist, plus a look at what father/son relationships are like, and how they can leave a mark. There are questions, such as whether we are our bodies, or whether we are something else that exists within our bodies. And there is, in case you hadn’t already worked it out, magic.” Kelly Fineman for “Guy’s Lit Wire”.
I would also add that it is very much about the women in a boy’s life and what those relationships look like.
Regarding the “Female Power in The Ocean at the End of the Lane”: many will likely feel the same: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the femalest book from a male author I have read in a long time.” And a few could likely add it is the femalest book from any author they’ve read in a long time. The article has spoilers so I would read the novel first.
In reading The Ocean at the End with Gaiman’s other works in mind: “This concern with the ways that stories make the world, make people, grow hearts, and heal—that’s familiar, too, but not wearying to see again.” Brit Mendelo for Tor.com
“For me it was a beautiful and strange novel. It was short, but it’s been a few weeks since I read it and I keep thinking about different aspects of the story. It raises questions and answers others. Gaiman’s writing brought all these elements together to create something I know I’ll return to again and again.” Melissa at “The Avid Reader”