Although Neil Gaiman’s latest book is steeped in myth like The Graveyard Book and as creepy as Coraline, unlike its predecessors, childhood in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is anything but safe. In perhaps his most reflective novel yet, Gaiman broods with melancholy and memory as his unnamed narrator returns to Sussex as an adult for a family funeral, and finds himself inexplicably drawn to the Hempstock farm at the end of the lane.
There, in front of the duck pond his childhood friend Lettie liked to call her ocean, he begins to remember how the Hempstock property was a place of solace for him, how he turned to Lettie for protection when he awoke from a nightmare choking on a silver shilling, how this sends them into the woods in pursuit of an ancient creature that takes the shape of rotten rags flapping in the wind–a creature that worms its way into the narrator’s life in the shape of a sadistic nanny who then wreaks havoc by turning all his family members against him.
Imagination and magic blur as Gaiman probes deeper into what sensible adults might dismiss as childish fears. What’s more terrifying, the ghastly phantasmagorical sequence of events the narrator recounts, or the grim possible reality that’s never confirmed? Are certain memories safer when fictionalized through the lens of fantasy or forgotten altogether, as the narrator does every time he leaves the Hempstocks’ farm. Can memories be excised as neatly as a cut and paste job in Photoshop, and does that make them any less painful or damaging? How can we heal when we can’t remember? How can we heal when we can’t forget? And perhaps most immediately pressing of all, are the Hempstocks really as supernatural as they are kind?
Gaiman doesn’t answer these questions, but he does bring to the surface small truths we’ve all experienced as children but may have forgotten along the way. The nature of adults to automatically believe other adults over children, the perverse pleasure certain grown-ups take in lording their power over children, the comfort of having a friend beside you to face your fears. And although the narrator spend much of his time as a seven year old boy, helpless, powerless, and afraid, in a climactic nightmarish scene he hits the nail straight on its head when he finally shouts at the apparition that may or may not have been his father, “does it make you feel big to make a little boy cry?”
While readers will no doubt see similarities in Ocean to Gaiman’s previous works, there’s also a Peter Pan-like quality to Lettie Hempstock, and I was reminded of Bridge to Terabithia as well. You’d think these two books wouldn’t go together, but then again, who would have thought a grown-up book could describe childhood so accurately while being so completely unsuitable for children?