First Published: 2013 by Headline
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
Much as I love Neil Gaiman’s novels (especially American Gods), to me, the short story has always felt like his most natural medium: brief, haunting dips into parallel worlds or forgotten corners of the familiar one. Several of Gaiman’s previous novels read like a series of interlinked shorts, which is no criticism because it’s a format that works brilliantly for the tales he has to tell which frequently draw together many disparate myths and legends and indeed, his wonderful The Graveyard Book makes this explicit, drawing on the structure and subverting the ideas of Kipling’s famous tales of Mowgli. This time around, Gaiman had even admitted in advance interviews that The Ocean at the End of the Lane hadn’t been planned as a novel – he began it as a short story for his wife Amanda Palmer, and it grew from there. So I approached this – with some relish I might add, because Gaimain is a wonderful writer – expecting a novel that felt like a series of shorts only to find something altogether more intensely woven. Tighter, and darker too, all traits born from the fact that this book seems much more intensely personal than anything Gaiman has previously produced.
Ocean is a novel about childhood, a time of wonder and imagination in many ways, yes, but also of fear, awkwardness and loneliness. Here Gaiman captures better than almost anyone else I can think of, the bittersweetness of that mix. The novel’s unnamed protagonist is a man who, returning to the landscape of his youth for a funeral, finds himself reflecting on a series of events that happened when he was seven years old and allows himself finally to revisit his half buried traumatic memories of that time. Our narrator was a bookish, socially awkward child (traits that I’m sure will stir sympathetic memories for many readers, myself included). But mixed in with the more commonplace recollections of a far from idyllic childhood – such as the birthday party nobody came to – there runs a vein of deeper horror. When their lodger gases himself to death in the family car he sets in motion a chain of events, and unleashes a dark presence on the world. The young narrator is guided in his perceptions of and struggles against this presence by the inhabitants of the neighbouring farm: three generations of Hempstock women (maiden, mother, crone) whose wisdom and experience runs deeper than experiences would suggest, as indeed does the topography of the farm itself.
At 256 pages this is a fairly quick read but, like the farm duckpond that Lettie Hempstock swears is really an ocean, its beguilingly simple prose masks some truly surprising depths. What I particularly enjoyed was the way that Gaiman blends magical, fantasy scenarios with more realistic scares: paths between worlds and flying horrors summoned or bound, but also marital disharmony and familial violence. Indeed the most intense and frightening passage in the book, which involves the boy’s father turning on him, is all the more scary because it feels entirely grounded in reality. But then, what does that term “reality” mean anyway? As Gaiman’s narrator comes to realise: ” the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great, dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmare and hunger.” It is that combination of the whimsical and the horrific that gives this short novel its power.
Is The Ocean at the End of the Lane Gaiman’s best work? To me it feels too soon to make that judgement yet (and it certainly faces some stiff competition) but there’s no doubt that it’s Gaiman’s most personal work, drawing on many details of his own childhood in England, to powerful effect. Perhaps it doesn’t quite live up to all the hype that surrounds this new release, but then there has been an awful lot of hype. Still, like the Hempstock women, this story has a quiet power that will, I’m sure, withstand the test of time.