The Bookshelf: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman did not intend for his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, to be a novel at all… it was meant to be a short novella written for his wife, Amanda Palmer of Dresden Dolls fame, and recent Kickstarter infamy.  As the story progressed, he began adding in bits that he knew she would like, as well as more personal details that were lifted directly from his childhood… and the result is Gaiman’s first adult novel in years, and it’s a lovely little slender read.

If you have read any of Neil Gaiman’s other works; Sandman, American Gods, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), Stardust… then you know of his deep love for mythology, and his ability to intertwine mythologies into a modern setting and make you believe in the possibilities of something larger and more grand occurring all around us at any time, unbeknownst to us feeble mortals.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane does exactly that… it breathes life into a small story rooted in basic childhood beliefs and fears, and places that child in the middle of something far more ancient and menacing than he could possibly imagine.  There is a point in the novel where the boy thinks about the nature of myth and fairy tales, and how fairy tales are meant for children, but mythology is simply there, for anyone, at any age.

The story opens with the unnamed protagonist visiting his childhood home for a funeral and finding himself drawn to a small farm… a farm that he recalls visiting 40 years previously, but his memories are foggy… until meets an old woman and sits beside a small pond, and his memories of what occurred there come flooding in.

Everything begins when an opal miner from South Africa, who was renting his old bedroom, steals his father’s Mini and commits suicide within it, at the end of the lane that runs alongside his family’s home that leads to the Hempstock farm.  It is with this event, and the discovery of the dead man in the car, that the young boy meets the Hempstock family;  Old Mrs. Hempstock, Ginnie Hempstock, and the eleven year old Lettie Hempstock, who immediately befriends our eight year old protagonist.

The Hempstock’s have shown up in other Gaiman works, and specifically, these three women represent a reoccurring theme throughout most of his works… they are representatives of the three fates… the Crone, the Mother, the Daughter… the past, the present, the future… and the little boy finds himself dealing with something older and more insidious than he could have ever imagined.

I adored this small tale.  It has a quality that leaves you believing that what you just read may not only be true, but that this story has been in existence for as long as memory could serve.  Although the events all occur at a very specific time, there is a certain timelessness to the whole experience, regardless of when or where it is actually rooted, and the manner in which Gaiman uses both his real memories of his own childhood and his understanding of the nature of myth (and youth), gives an odd impression that this could have been an event that did in fact occur to a young Neil Gaiman.

What is reality?  What is fantasy?  What is childhood… and do adults ever actually grow up at all?  These are some of the mammoth questions asked in this sliver of a novel… and the emotional heft behind it is staggering.  Remind yourself of what it was to be a child, and read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

There are no grown ups,
Cornelius J. Blahg

2 thoughts

  1. After reading your review I decided to shunt this novel to the top of my Kindle in-tray. I’m glad I did because it was a magical experience. I was growing up at the same time as Neil Gaiman; it was a heavy industrial area at the time (not now) in South Wales, but the hills were only a 10-minute walk away either side of the valley so we would all inevitably explore these when possible. The book brought back quite a few memories of what a hyperactive pre-teen imagination is capable of; haunted woods, a hill in the distance that was obviously (!) a volcano, getting spooked by weirdly gnarled trees as we headed home at dusk.

    Some of his asides about 1960s Britain also brought back memories. At the time my grandmother didn’t have an ‘indoor lavvie’… it was at the end of the garden of a small terraced miners house. There was also a tin bath which was ceremoniously put in front of the coal fire and filled with boiling water from a kettle and then cold water to achieve a manageable temperature; the side near the fire would be too hot to touch and the opposite side very cold. Amazing to think this was less than 50 years ago. Gaiman has got me thinking about these things for the first time in years.

    There’s a reference to a TV show called ‘How’. This existed, I can distinctly remember the three presenters in the feathered headresses.

    “…… his ability to intertwine mythologies into a modern setting and make you believe in the possibilities of something larger and more grand occurring all around us at any time, unbeknownst to us feeble mortals”.

    I always enjoy it when a book gives me the feeling that something is running in parallel with our everyday lives, something huge and ancient that sometimes touches us for good or bad… with or without us understanding what has happened. On this thought I’ll leave you with a few book recommendations that use this theme extremely well:

    “Some Kind of Fairy Tale” by Graham Joyce.
    “Mythago Wood” by Robert Holdstock.
    “Lavondyss” by Robert Holdstock.

    You may have read them. No way for me to know. But I think anyone who enjoyed the Gaiman novel will get a lot out of the above three books.

    1. Thanks Martin… I haven’t read any of those books, but will certainly throw them into the ever growing pile of books I want to get to.

      So cool that you were able to relate as well as you could with what Gaiman was describing… for me, his writing is so incredibly expressive and evocative that I was able to imagine the childhood in the book (which I understand he borrowed heavily from his own childhood, and from what you are saying, it was a very apt description) and found myself completely engrossed in the story in a way that few other authors are able to do for me. So glad you enjoyed it… and more so that you understood what I was getting at in terms of “something larger”. The more I can believe something fantastical exists in our world, the happier I am… always doing my best to kill that cynical beast in me (its a tough monster though).

      Thanks again for the comment… much appreciated!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *