Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Date Started: June 18, 2013 Date Finished: June 20, 2013
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★★
Every book has a story: I realize that the last thing the Internet needs is another review of Neil Gaiman’s new book. There have been many written by people important enough to get advanced reader copies, and their reviews are much more eloquent and professional than mine. But it was during the age that I first started reading Neil Gaiman that I realized maybe my weird little voice mattered, and so did my weird little stories. So, here goes.
The first Neil Gaiman book I read was Coraline. I was in junior high and the library was having a book fair (I think the night of parent/teacher interviews, but I might be misremembering). As I gazed through the titles, my attention was abruptly caught and held by the image of this strange wooden girl staring out at me, with her name in a sinister and bloody font above her: Coraline.
My childhood reading had always been dominated by fantasy – fairy tales and legends as much of the Grimm variety as the Disney variety. In my tween years, I almost made a point of reading books that were too old for me, usually my parents’ thrillers that I found in the basement. YA was not the dominating “genre” then that it is today, and I really felt that if I did not want to read children’s books, I had to read adult books.
But then I found Coraline. She was about my age, had a wild imagination and a draw towards fantasy, and her wishes brought her to perilous situations that she was clever enough to solve. Coraline was the first “me” I had ever found in a book. I had looked up to Nancy Drew, certainly, and imagined what it would be like to be an adult in one of my parents’ paperback mysteries. Coraline was my peer.
Like many other writers, I like to think that, if we ever met, Neil Gaiman and I would be fast friends. It sounds so stupid, but to my teenage self, just the style of his writing made it clear that he knew so much about me, in a time when I felt very unlike everyone else. As I read more of his books, I uncovered this world of adults who liked fantasy and fairy tales as much as I did, but who were writing these stories in ways that were not for children, or at least not just for children. Weird stories that made me feel like there was a place in the world for me and my weirdness.
I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane came out at the perfect point in my growing-up-with-Neil-Gaiman experience. Aside from the prologue and epilogue, the story takes place when the narrator is seven years old. To those who have never read Neil Gaiman, this probably sounds like an odd premise for an adult book, but you have to be an adult to read this book. Our narrator’s story is told explicitly with the voice of adulthood, by someone who, looking back, can identify his childhood fear and anger and sadness in a way that a child could not articulate.
In the grand scheme, I’m not that far from childhood myself. I still remember being so small, looking up at these giant beings and thinking them a different species altogether from myself and my small brethren. That age when you think you will be a child forever because you have only ever thought of yourself as a child. That age when you still need a lot of help and protection, but are desperate for some sort of agency, with a cry of, “I can do it myself!” I’m more or less an adult now and my memories, like the narrator’s, are only in pieces, surrounding particularly memorable or at least memorably mundane events. I could not possibly put the whole seventeen years back together again, but I do know how that childhood moulded me to become this adult who still loses herself in stories and imagination.
The action in The Ocean at the End of the Lane takes place over the brief time the narrator knew the girl who lived on the farm nearby, a girl name Lettie Hempstock. She’s eleven, and even the four years that separate her and the narrator seem like a very big distance. She also has an ocean in her backyard. Almost all the other characters in the book are adults. Wise, compassionate, kind adults, and frightening, sad, violent adults.
In the little time we spend with our narrator as an adult, it is clear how these moments in his childhood became building blocks of the man we meet. Those days he spent with Lettie Hempstock were full of magic and mystery that never come to be explained in a full arc or mythos. They were just strange things that happened when he was a child, in no place to question what the world was and was not. And just because they were strange, or because he was a child, does not make his feelings or experience any less legitimate.
To read The Ocean at the End of the Lane is to remember the wonder and fear of childhood, a state that for some of us – certainly for this writer – is never very far away. I am inclined to call it an adult version of Where the Wild Things Are, something that captures the darker side of childhood, but also the wide-eyed brilliance of it. This book is definitely for those of us who grew up with fantasy and fairy tales, and whose childish willingness to believe was marred by the real world along the way.
I know that it was not for me, but this book’s dedication “For Amanda” had a very special resonance with me. I don’t know how Neil Gaiman does it, but he somehow always manages to express how this weird little girl feels. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a profound and endearing addition to the books I have grown up on.