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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman


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When The Ocean at the End of the Lane came out in 2013, I thought it was a fine book.  I am a long time fan of Neil Gaiman’s work, which blends mythology with contemporary stories in a fine example of modern magic realism.  I like magic realism a lot, so this isn’t a very hard sell for me at all.  So when my book club voted in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I said…sure, why not.  I’d better reread it, I thought, and since it is a short book, I left it for a few days before we were due to meet so that it would be fresh in my mind.

But sometimes, when you go and read a book that you read a long time ago, you find that it is different.  And so, in my second reading of novel, no one was more surprised than me to discover that the book gutted me.  I read it slowly, pausing to re-read a passage or twist my tongue over a phrase in the book.  Sometimes it is just that when you know the ending of a book that you read it differently.  And other times, it is because you’ve changed.  Your life has changed.  In 2013, I admired the beauty of the novel, particularly in the passages where Gaiman wrote about his father, who had just passed away.  I read the second chapter and paused, because it had only been a few years since I had lost my mother, and lingered over the passages of an adult child who has become lop-sided, because their frame of the universe has just been stripped away.

I slowed the car as I saw the new house.  It would always be the new house in my head.  I pulled up into the driveway, observing the way they had built out on the mid-seventies architecture.  I had forgotten that the bricks of the house were chocolate-brown.  The new people had made my mother’s tiny balcony into a two-story sunroom.  I stared at the house, remembering less than I had expected about my teenage years: no good times, no bad times.  I’d lived in that place, for a while, as a teenager.  It didn’t seem to be any part of who I was now.

I backed the car out of the driveway.

What I did not see until 2016 was the beauty of the rest of the book.  A boy, a nameless boy, lives in a large and rambling old house in rural England.  His father’s business is failing and, to keep money coming in, the family begins letting out rooms.  One of these lodgers is an aggressive opal miner from South Africa, who runs over the boy’s cat on his way to the house.  The next night, he steals the family’s car and drives it to the end of the road and kills himself.  When the car is discovered, with the body in it, the boy is sent to the neighboring Hempstock farmhouse while his father calls the police.

Any fan of mythology will immediately recognize the Mother, Maiden and Crone in the Hempstocks.  Lettie Hempstock appears as an 11 year old girl and takes in the boy and makes a friend of him.  Her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock, keep an eye on the farm and fields as they have always done.  It doesn’t take them long to notice that an ancient creature was wakened with the lodger’s suicide.

The Hempstocks are magical, but they are of the old and wild magic of the ancient stories.  When Lettie takes him with her to go banish the creature that the miner’s death awakened, the boy is drawn into a dangerous world of primeval monsters, with only the Hempstocks at the end of the lane to protect him.

The plot sounds something like any fantasy journey novel, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane reads differently, largely because Gaiman writes with a Hemingwayesque simplicity.  He throws in zingers that feel incredibly true and familiar, particularly for those of us that feel a kinship with the lost and lonely boy.

Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.

There was a table laid with jellies and trifles, with a party hat beside each place, and a birthday cake with seven candles on it in the center of the table.  The cake had a book drawn on it, in icing.  My mother, who had organized the party, told me that the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a birthday cake before, and that mostly for boys it was footballs or spaceships.  I was their first book.

I kept stopping to admire Gaiman’s paragraphs, because his writing is so elegant.  The story itself is simple — it is the tale of a boy on an adventure that takes him no further than the end of the road that he lives on.  His world is a child’s world, small and intense in detail.  The protagonist’s voice is so good, rarely slipping out of the understanding of a seven-year-old and it feels very, very real.

I was shivering convulsively and I was wet through and I was cold, very cold.  It felt like all my heat had been stolen.  The wet clothes clung to my flesh and dripped cold water onto the floor.  With every step I took my sandals made comical squelching noises, and water oozed from the little diamond-shaped holes on the top of the sandals.

When the biggest monster of the story appears, she appears as the boy’s nanny.  As such characters usually are, she’s entrancing to the boy’s parents and sister, but terrible to the boy.  The unfairness of his treatment grates, particularly as she becomes more and more threatening to the boy’s survival.

“Everybody wants money,” she said, as if it were self-evident.  “It makes them happy.  It will make you happy, if you let it.”  We had come out by the heap of grass clippings, behind the circle of green grass that we called the fairy ring: sometimes, when the weather was wet, it filled with vivid yellow toadstools.

“Now,” she said.  “Go to your room.”

I ran from her–ran as fast as I could, across the fairy ring, up the lawn, past the rosebushes, past the coal shed and into the house.

Ursula Monkton was standing just inside the back door of the house to welcome me in, although she could not have got past me.  I would have seen.  Her hair was perfect, and her lipstick seemed freshly applied.

And then it gets worse.  And then better, because the boy has made a friend in Lettie Hempstock.  The Hempstocks are entrancing, as old as the earth itself, and their ways are straight out of a thousand fairy tales.  The Hempstock farm is a place that you can’t help but want to visit, with it’s roaring wall-sized kitchen fireplace and good-smelling stews and roasted carrots.

Lettie’s mother was already hauling a tin bath from beneath the kitchen table, and filling it with steaming water from the enormous black kettle that hung above the fireplace.  Pots of cold water were added until she pronounced it the perfect temperature.

“Right.  In you go,” said Old Mrs. Hempstock.  “Spit-spot.”

I looked at her, horrified.  Was I going to have to undress in front of people I didn’t know?

The Hempstocks remind us that a world that is filled with evil must also be filled with love.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple story, but a beautiful story, in the way that only simple stories can be. I highly recommend that you read it through, then turn around and read it again.

I’ll meet you at the end.

  • Publisher:William Morrow and Company
  • Publish Date: June 18, 2013
  • Hardcover: 178 pages
  • ISBN: 9780062255655
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: adventure, fantasy, fiction, magic realism
Subjects: coming of age, fantasy, healing, love, magic, nature, survival

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