‘Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me.’
I recently bought and read ‘The Ocean at The End of the Lane’ at the suggestion of a friend. Neil Gaiman, a fantasy children’s writer, wrote his first adult novel in a long time and won a National Book Award for it. My interest was mildly piqued. Mildly, since I’m not an avid reader of the fantasy genre. Moreover, the description at the back of this book and (I’m sorry, but) *whispers* the cover had me expecting nothing but a simple, children’s tale of sorts. I still decided to give it a shot, though, and to my utter delight, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The book begins with our narrator, a 40 something year old successful artist, revisiting his childhood home and suddenly remembering everything that had happened to him as a 7 year old boy. Henceforth told from the 7 year old’s perspective, it navigates the wondrous and simultaneously terrifying world of childhood. He remembers magic. He remembers Lettie Hempstock, the girl from the farm at the end of the lane, and her pond, which she said was an ocean. He remembers her mother and her grandmother and how the three of them were powerful and kindly creatures, existing outside of time and guarding the world from unknown evil.
When a suicide in the town unleashes ancient and malevolent powers, the boy is sucked into a battle against supernatural horrors. He finds himself ostracized from his family, alone and scared. His sole refuge, his sanctuary is the farm at the end of the lane.
Gaiman’s prose is beautifully lyrical. It sucks us into a whirlwind of emotions and pulls at every tendril of our hearts. It makes us feel safety and comfort and as well as abject terror and powerlessness. Gaiman is especially adept at painting this powerlessness, and reminding us of what it is like to be a child in a big, scary, adult world. In one incident, the boy’s father breaks down the bathroom door where he was hiding, fills the bathtub with cold water and pushes his head under to suffocate him as punishment. The monster in the story takes the guise of a pretty nanny- Ursula Monkton. She win’s over the rest of his family and lives in their house, controlling and isolating the boy.
This story is a magical fairy tale. But like all other fairy tales, it is interwoven with the dark (or otherwise) realities of human nature. Despite being magical and fantastical, the story has countless real world analogues. The boy dabbles in the supernatural world as a kid. He has extraordinary experiences. But as he grows up, this access to the extraordinary is cut off. The memories fade. As we grow up, ordinariness often tends to take over our mundane lives and we lose the magic we had as wide eyed children.
As an adult, all the protagonist is left with is the quiet but powerful effect that the magical childhood experiences had on his adult self. And a ringing question of whether or not the person he became was worth the sacrifices that had been made for him as a child.
“And did I pass?” The face of the old woman on my right was unreadable in the gathering dusk. On my left the younger woman said, “You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a nuanced exploration of the wonders and terrors of being a child, of the effect childhood experiences have on us as adults, of friendship, sacrifice, and so much more. And at the same time, it is also simply a beautiful fantasy tale.
By Samawiyah Ulde