Author: Neil Gaiman
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: July 2014
It’s summertime and you’re seven, and you live in rural England decades ago. A series of events draws you toward the center of things unimaginable, things an adult would never believe even if you told them. It is a world small yet vast, and deeply unsettling. Regardless of the outlandish circumstances, they are real, at least to you.
Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a tight exploration of fantasy that rests on the power of memory, and the comparisons between children and adults. His protagonist experiences the events of the novel in flashback, events he had mostly forgotten until his memory is jogged by returning to a particular place at the end of a lane near his boyhood home. He recalls what it was like to be seven:
I was a normal child. Which is to say, I was selfish and I was not entirely convinced of the existence of things that were not me, and I was certain, rock-solid unshakably certain, that I was the most important thing in creation. There was nothing that was more important to me than I was.
This childlike mindset makes the supernatural events of the book quite frightening, because they are pretty clearly happening to someone who will accept them at face value. He cannot turn to his parents or sister, who are oblivious, but he does find allies in the Hempstock women, who span three human generations yet are not of the world as he knows it. He accidentally becomes a door to something dangerous and Ginnie Hempstock clues him in that “it’s dangerous to be a door.”
The world of the book is tangible, and the events unfold in wild yet satisfying ways. The boy deals with creatures trying to enter through tears in the fabric of the universe, calling to mind the todash darkness of Stephen King’s creations. The fear lies in the utterly incomprehensible nature of worlds that may possibly exist beyond ours: “I wished I could have seen who was talking. If you have something specific and visible to fear, rather than something that could be anything, it is easier.”
The book is a wonder in creating the unease of a child up against immeasurable forces, and so accurate in its depictions of him not overthinking every single event, just simply reacting to each as best he knows how. Isn’t it frightening to know that the adults will never believe you if you tell them you’re seeing nightmares come to life? Even if the experience is subjective, these things would be real in the mind of the child experiencing them. Adults: they won’t be on your side.
Gaiman has succeeded in contributing to the world of myth, and asks us to examine our own memories and experiences in order to work through our pasts. As the main character states: “I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” What a perfect summary of the type of book we have here. It’s fiction well-suited for aging adults, yet something that could be read during the teenage years. The story is above and beyond a target audience. It is its own creation in the fabric of our mysterious universe.