image courtesy of: https://www.bookdepository.com/Ocean-at-End-Lane-Neil-Gaiman/9781472228420
A highly inventive story that will remind adults how terrifying childhood can be.
I find it ironic that science fiction and fantasy are often dismissed as cheap entertainment by literary elites, when the authors of these genres draw from a wider range of skills and inspirations than their “more serious” literary counterparts, in addition to often being as well educated as, and better read. Due to the style he injects into his works, Neil Gaiman is one of only a few genre authors to escape this stigma. Like all of Gaiman’s works, ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ comfortably occupies multiple genres at once: horror, myth, character study, and can successfully blend them into a cohesive work which also incorporates fascinating insights about human nature.
While attending a funeral in his hometown, the novel’s unnamed narrator, now a middle-aged man, wanders away from his family and stumbles upon a pond which triggers a set of memories which are interesting to say the least. He remembers back to the year he turned seven, when he was a lonely young boy with a fondness for stories and kittens. At this time, his parents, strapped for cash, take in a South African opal miner as a boarder, who later goes missing, along with the family’s new Mini Cooper. After much searching, the Mini is found near a pond, with the man’s dead body inside. While the narrator’s father deals with the police, he goes to a nearby house where he meets Lettie Hempstock, a young girl from a mysterious family who claims to be older than the moon, and who tells him the pond is actually an ocean. While enjoying breakfast with the Hempstocks the boy is taken by Lettie to the otherworldly forest outside their home, where he watches Lettie battle a monstrous creature made of rags. That night, he goes home and discovers a worm has burrowed into his foot, he pulls it out, and a few days later his family hires Ursula Monkton, a live-in house keeper whose beauty and charm are only masks to her supernatural malevolence.
What I enjoy most about Gaiman as an author is the lack of embellishment there is to be found in his prose. While lush, flowing prose can be a joy to read, some authors will use it to compensate for the inadequacies of their work, smothering the inner beauty of a story. In the case of ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane,’ a minimalistic approach not only proves pleasurable on a stylistic level but contributes beautifully in terms of theme. Children, even ones as clever as our narrator, have a limited understanding of the world, and are easily hindered when trying to articulate their reactions to it, thus, use of simplistic language is perfect when recreating the voice of a child. What is more, our narrator’s description of the fantastical events have a hazy, dreamlike quality to them, that leads one to question whether or not what they are reading is actually true, or just a product of the narrator’s imagination. It is easy for adults to dismiss children for the wild imaginations, what Gaiman tries (and succeeds) to do with this book, is remind us how much children rely on their imaginations to make sense of things which frighten them. Children are small when everything else around them is big. To a child all adults are monsters, and everything seems older than the moon.