So, this is one of those books. You know, the ones that pack such a punch I can’t put into words what it means to me. Well, actually, I did, but it was at 2 a.m. and I failed to save my oh-so eloquent words due to exhaustion. Now, I’ve got to try, again.
Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first book of Neil Gaiman’s that I’ve read, so I have nothing to compare it to. What I do know is that it’s a book whose words are woven into my soul. It’s a book I’m grateful to have read, especially at this time in my life, because it ripped me from my present and dumped me back into my childhood, a place I’d forgotten was so magical, yet so simple.
Our narrator finds himself pushing 50 when he returns to his childhood home, following a long forgotten narrow lane to its end where his friend Lettie Hempstock lived. He’s typical in that he’s reached middle age and is seemingly unfulfilled: divorced, children grown, and creating art that sometimes fills the holes in his life. He’s home to attend the funeral of someone important, though we never find out who.
He’s greeted by Mrs. Hempstock, or perhaps Old Mrs. Hempstock, who remembers him as Lettie’s friend. She offers tea, but when he remembers Lettie’s old pond which she thought was the ocean (as children are wont to do), he decides to visit it first. As he makes his way to the shores of the pond, memories come flooding back until he finds himself sitting on a bench, filled with adventures he’d long forgotten.
This book is fantasy and reality. The fantasy is wrapped up in the adventures that Lettie and the narrator encounter, the reality based on our narrator’s childlike view of life. As the children happen upon other worldly creatures, we are reminded of how, as children, we lived life like it was fantasy, that there was magic to be found.
“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons to find the spaces between fences.”
The narrator’s mind, innocent and filled with wonder, is also steeped in the division of children and adults. When the monster appears, it takes the form of an adult, giving it power over him made worse by its adulthood. Yet, when he shares his fear of the monster with Lettie, she counters, asking him what he thinks the monster is scared of.
“Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.”
“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters. And, as for grown-ups…” She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
As someone who has reached middle age, I can’t imagine a combination of words that have more meaning. This trip back to childhood in Ocean at the End of the Lane quickly became so important to me, because it reminded me of who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I should be. I read a review by a younger reader who said that right now this wasn’t their favorite Gaiman book, but that she was sure it would be in 10 or 20 years. This sums up the effect this book has on readers.
And, just in case you’re not looking for something deeply philosophical, this is easily read as a fantasy adventure with mythological and biblical overtones (these depend on the reader, I suspect). There’s a scary nanny, hungry birds, cute kittens, a pain in the ass sister, food descriptions to make the reader drool, and an ocean at the end of the lane.
5 stars for Ocean at the End of the Lane because I’ll probably read this at least once a year.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for honest feedback.
Ocean at the End of the Lane was first published in June 2013 and recently reissued.
Neil Gaiman is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains; the Sandman series of graphic novels; and the story collections Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and Trigger Warning. He is the winner of numerous literary honors, including the Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy awards, and the Newbery and Carnegie Medals. Originally from England, he now lives in the United States. He is Professor in the Arts at Bard College.
Visit his website at http://www.neilgaiman.com