A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let the adults know I knew. It would scare them.”
Rarely has an epigraph more succinctly summed up ‘its’ novel. In this, Gaiman’s much-admired recent novel for adults, our nameless narrator returns to the area in which he grew up to attend a funeral, and finds himself drawn to an isolated cottage at the end of the lane near his childhood home. He has vague memories of its occupants – Lettie Hempstock, her mother, and her grandmother – with whom he spent time as a seven year old. Lettie had been around the same age as him and, he seems to remember, referred to the pond in her garden as an ocean.
As he sits by said ‘ocean’, memories flood back. That summer when he was seven, an opal miner came to lodge with his family but ended up stealing the family car and committing suicide in it. This unleashes a host of negative, other-worldly forces that only the Hempstocks seem to comprehend. Our young friend is inadvertently swept up in it all, and has to do battle with those forces as they take the human form of Ursula Monkton, an evil au pair type figure. Events take a very dark turn, and it takes the protective circle of the Hempstock women to save him.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is very easy to read, and the young voice of its narrator makes it feel a bit like reading a YA novel in terms of its tone (though not necessarily of the events that take place, which can be disturbing and occasionally gruesome). However, its accessibility belies the depth of the novel, much as the small diameter of the Hempstock’s ocean doesn’t necessarily speak to its depths. Memory is an uncertain thing in this novel, not just because of the unreliability of the narrator’s childhood memories, but because we know that the Hempstock women are pretty handy with the scissors and the needle and the thread of time. Who knows what else Old Mrs Hempstock might have snipped when we weren’t looking?
It is also a novel where most of the adults vastly underestimate the understanding the children around them have. Indeed, this young boy has a much deeper understanding of what is afoot than his parents, who are at the mercy of the whim of Ursula Monkton without even realising. They may think they know best, but they would be wrong.
Is it a magical world that most people have no notion of, or is it the soaring imagination of a child? I suppose it depends on what you want to believe. Are you reading it with an adult view or a childhood one… or somewhere in between? Perhaps best of all you shouldn’t analyse it too deeply, but sit back and enjoy this dark fairytale just as it is.
Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (London: Headline, 2013). Kindle edn: eISBN 9781472200334, £3.39