The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman has written a fairy tale for adults, reminding us that childhood memories never go away, even when we think we have forgotten them.
It's been eight years since Neil Gaiman wrote a novel for adults, but frankly, many fans may not have noticed. I had no trouble locating and devouring a copy of “The Graveyard Book” in the kids' section – and the fact that it won a Newbery Award rather than a National Book Award in no way diminished my enjoyment.
“Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start,” says the unnamed narrator in “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” “Why didn't adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?" Of course, plenty of adults do, and Gaiman has given them a fairy tale of their own.
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” pairs themes from Gaiman's young adult novels – a lonely child having to outwit an evil masquerading as a caregiver – with a middle-aged melancholy. It's his most successful “grown-up” book since 2001's Hugo and Nebula-winning “American Gods,” at one-third the page count.
“I was not happy as a child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else,” the narrator tells readers. “I do not miss childhood. but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy.”
In the opening, a 40-something man returns to England for a funeral and finds himself visiting a forgotten neighbors' farm -- the only remnant of his childhood untouched by developers.
As he sits by the duck pond, he remembers his only friend told him it was an ocean, and his memories of Lettie Hempstock and her family start to wash over him.
“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”
In this case, though, how he ever forgot is one of the mysteries of the novel. Even submerged beneath his divorce, work, and grown children, it becomes apparent that the memories have haunted the narrator his whole life.
The three witches lived down the lane – a little girl, mother, and grandmother. (Any resemblance to Graves' maiden, mother, and crone are purely intentional.) When he was seven, they were his only allies against an evil that infiltrated his family.
The boy's family had lost its money and took in paying guests. One of them, an opal miner, stole his family's car and committed suicide in it. The next day the boy starts coughing up shillings in a more prosaic version of the fairy tale “Toad and Diamonds,” while his older sister gets pelted with coins from the shrubbery.
The dead man's desperation attracted a presence that did not belong in this world, Lettie Hempstock and her granny explain. Lettie and the boy tried to send “the ragged thing” back, but something went wrong and it followed the boy home.
The Other Mother from “Coraline,” with her button eyes and sadistic sewing projects, still stands as the scariest thing I've read from Gaiman. (Footworms, however, are a truly insidious invention.)
The ragged thing calls herself Ursula Monkton, gives herself a blonde pageboy, and insinuates herself into the boy's home effortlessly – a claustrophobic evil with an apron and a handy way around the kitchen. (In a Gaiman novel, if someone serves you roast chicken and peas, run like hell.)
As in most fairy tales, the parents are useless. (“I do not remember asking adults about anything, except as a last resort,” the boy recalls.) His older sister, mother, and, most appallingly, father fall under the spell of the thing calling itself Ursula Monkton.
The novel never really delves into the effect of being subsumed by evil on otherwise banal people. But just like the duck pond Lettie called her ocean, the poignant story offers more depth than its slender page count might suggest. His many fans won't regret following Gaiman to the end of the lane.