Even though the easiest thing to distract a child, from pretty much anything, is to offer them ice-cream, being a child can be very terrifying. Let’s face it, most of the things that happened are long forgotten or rather repressed. So what do we really remember about our childhood when we look back?
I was very excited when Neil Gaiman published a new book for adults. I didn’t know what to expect. He had mentioned in one of his interviews, before the publication, that The Ocean at the End of the Lane was never supposed to be a full length novel, but a short story for his wife. Also, it was a twist on his childhood memories – not an autobiography, but the world seen through the eyes of a young Neil Gaiman.
The main character, a bookish boy with no friends, gets caught in a crossfire between his childlike imagination and curiosity, and the oppressing world of adults. Having an annoying sister is difficult, but losing his own room and having to share one with her when their parents rent out his to a lodger is a nightmare. South African opal miner brings disaster to the family from day one. Adults don’t seem to understand that pets can’t be easily replaced and the philosophy of ‘a cat for a cat’ doesn’t work. It is not the same cat! Books are the only friends of the main character. Not a single person turned up for his birthday – I loved the nostalgic description of the unattended party with a birthday cake with a book on it. Only bookworms might understand how unlikely it was to have friends when most of the time was spent befriending fictional characters.
When the opal miner departs, the boy finds a friend in a remarkable girl who lives in a nearby farm. Sudden changes caused by unexpected events push the two children closer together. Less than convenient circumstances prove to be a very good opportunity to cement the friendship and stand together to face the unknown danger. I love Gaiman’s effortless way of merging different worlds. The boy and Lettie Hempstock, his new best friend – his only friend, find themselves surrounded by strange creatures that inhabit the world’s dimensions which are not accessible without magic, or maybe they were always there and no one knew. But who is his friend really? Lettie seems to be older than she looks. She knows far more than a little girl should and she claims that the pond behind the farm is her ocean. Her mum and granny remember things nobody else can from absolutely ages ago.
During one of their adventures something happened and everything changed. The vacant lodger place was taken immediately by the mysterious Ursula Monkton. She proves to be sickly sweet – simply too sweet to be real – and she has everybody under her thumb except the boy. Strange things keep happening and only he can see the difference. He faces utter betrayal from his family and an unimaginable fear of imminent violence and danger ready to be served as punishment for his disobedience. Being a child is like being a drop of water in the ocean – everything around is huge, magnified and intensified. Parents are scary big people with no imagination, who must have the last word in every argument. Even the smallest shadows can induce the most gruesome night terrors. As if he wasn’t scared enough already, the main character finds out that he holds a vital key to everything that changed – he might have to die to put everything back together the way it should be.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is full of juvenile melancholy and terrifying darkness. Darkness as we know from dreadful fairy tales. Those that would leave you terrorised for days.
The darkness was stirred and things that ripped the veil between the worlds endangered the existence of the planet and lives of everybody. The creation of the world described by Gaiman is simply amazing. The wonderfully beautiful and dangerous creatures, called varmints, can either restore order or devour the world as we know it. Lettie and the boy keep fighting but fear and destruction can unexpectedly make people over cowardly or brave. In the spur of a moment, one action leads to terrifying consequences. The friendship is tested by the utmost sacrifice that leaves you with a tear or two rolling lonely down your cheek to avenge the hero.
Gaiman describes what his childhood was like through the eyes of this little boy who one summer gained so much and lost even more. This compelling story threw me back to my childhood and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to tackle what I faced. Things which are best left untouched, but things nevertheless that make you the person you are through this incredible journey from curious childhood, through darkness, to an adulthood full of uncertainty, regret and unfulfilled expectations.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an extraordinary book that tackles the transition between the world seen by a child to the world of an adult. Neil Gaiman discussed this book and the importance of childhood memories with psychologist and writer, Charles Fernyhough, during their event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August this year. They talked about the intricate way how memories are either forgotten or repressed during the process of growing up but how they can be triggered and revived by certain feelings, smells etc. Also, how important they might be.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a brilliant book full of superb fantasy, Gaiman-style, with a compelling story of ultimate sacrifice and growing up to be who one wants to be despite, sometimes unreasonable, expectations of the world. I love the language and sheer honesty with which the story is relayed. I found myself thinking about my own childhood for a long time after I finished the book. The characters are outstanding. Immortal inhabitants of the Hempstock farm are astonishing and incredibly fascinating. I need to admit I adore varmints, the hunger birds. The book brought Chagall paintings and Poe’s writing to my mind – the hazy style of mystery and dread – as if it could have just been a dream. It was a very different book to other ones written by Neil Gaiman – maybe because of the very personal touch to the story. However, I absolutely adored the book because of the story itself and because of the brilliant characters and atmosphere that was both delightful and terrifying or simply delightfully terrifying – just the way Gaiman conjures the wor(l)ds.
I would recommend the book not only to fans of Neil Gaiman but to anybody who would like a magical journey back in time to when life was much simpler, yet more complicated.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Publisher: Headline Review
Format: Hardback, 256 pages
ISBN: 9781472200310 (Hardback)