Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA
I picked up Neil Gaiman’s latest novel The Ocean At The End Of The Lane the other day and found myself unable to put it down.
I’m not the biggest fan of fantasy stories, but Gaiman’s writing here drew me into its imaginary world with ease, and I found myself not wanting to leave it, even as it became a very dark place.
Having returned home for a funeral, a middle aged man takes a drive to the neighboring farm of his childhood home. Once there, he’s flooded with memories, and he remembers his childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, a girl who was several years older than him, who used to live there. She has since moved away to Australia. At the farm, he finds Lettie’s mother, Mrs. Hempstock, still there, and she invites him inside
Later, the man visits the pond behind the Hempstock farm, a magical body of water which Lettie used to refer to as her ocean. As he sits by the water, memories from his childhood return, flooding his senses with an all-consuming deluge that enables him to remember details of events long forgotten.
He was seven and Lettie was eleven that year, the year when his life was invaded by sinister forces from another dimension, the main one which comes in the guise of his new nanny, Ursula Monkton, that would have killed him, if not for the protection of Lettie, her mother Ginnie, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is driven by Gaiman’s writing. His style is so strong you’d believe pretty much anything he dishes out. Concepts like coins appearing in a boy’s mouth, a worm living inside the foot of a boy, in a hole leading to another dimension, are described so naturally and matter-of-factly that I couldn’t help but believe them.
The characters are fleshed out wonderfully. The three women characters, in particular, Lettie, her mom Ginnie, and Old Mrs. Hempstock are the best characters in the book and the highlight of the story.
The novel is saturated with memorable lines and ideas, and reading it was one of the more rewarding reading experiences I’ve enjoyed in a long time.
Consider the opening to Chapter 1. “Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.” Talk about gaining sympathy for your main character right off the bat. Here’s this little boy, the party is all set up at his house by his mom, and nobody shows but his sister. The painful description follows of how his mom proceeds with the party anyway, being the loving parent that she is. And yet, we find out later, that when the boy leaves the barren party and retreats to his room to read some books, that he’s really not all that upset, as he says, “Books were safer than other people anyway.” And he goes on to say that those kids who didn’t show up to his party weren’t his friends anyway. They were just children he went to school with.
The novel is full of truisms. “Adults follow paths. Children explore.” This statement begins a sequence where the boy must escape from his house in order to reach the Hempstock farm, and with those two concise sentences, Gaiman enables the reader to know and understand why it’s so easy for the boy to escape, because he’s already spent day after day of his childhood exploring these routes.
And “Growing up, I took so many cues from books. They taught me most of what I knew about what people did, about how to behave. They were my teachers and my advisors. In books, boys climbed trees, so I climbed trees, sometimes very high, always scared of falling. In books, people climbed up and down drainpipes to get in and out of houses, so I climbed up and down drainpipes too.” Which is how he escapes from his house.
There’s also a perfectly horrifying scene where the boy’s father, under the influence of the evil forces around them, attempts to drown him in the tub. When the sequence is over, and the boy is still alive, his father coldly says to him, “Go to your bedroom. I don’t want to see you again tonight.”
The best part of the novel though is its strong sense of place, in particular the Hempstock farm. Gaiman creates a place that is a safe haven for the boy. Most people have a place like this from their childhood. For me, it was my grandmother’s house, that place where you feel safe from all of life’s evils, and as a child with an overactive imagination, these evils can take all sorts of shapes. For me, it was the fear that the Wolf Man would come smashing through the window and eat me, but not at my grandmother’s house. The windows there were supernaturally strong. No monster could break through.
As I read this novel, and read about the boy’s experience at the Hempstock farm, I couldn’t help but remember my own experiences as a child.
When the Hempstocks give the boy hot soup and a warm bath, he says “I felt safe. It was as if the essence of grandmotherliness had been condensed into that one place, that one time. I was not at all afraid of Ursula Monkton, whatever she was, not then. Not there.”
There’s also a neat sequence in which Old Mrs. Hempstock removes the worm from the hole in the boy’s foot. It’s not for the squeamish, and yet it’s described in the most comforting and natural language.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a quick read, yet it’s a rich and rewarding experience. I was awed by its sense of place, the farmhouse and the magical ocean at the end of the lane, drawn into its detailed characters, and appreciated the truth surrounding this story.
There are strong fantasy elements throughout, but this is a story that uses fantasy as a backdrop to a tale of a young boy and his friendship with the young girl down the road and her family. How he felt protected by her, how he trusted her, and how ultimately, she saved his life.
My favorite stories are the ones full of truth, where things stated are pulled from common experiences, where the story as outlandish as it may seem, is believable. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane tells an incredible tale, but because it’s narrated by a person who is ultimately very believable, I believed it.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is one of my favorite reads of the year. I recommend it highly.