The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Posted: February 16, 2016 in Book reviews
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By Neil Gaiman


An unnamed middle aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he grew up in is long gone he wanders down the lane to a farm so ancient it is mentioned in the Domesday Book. At the end of the lane is a small duck pond and when he reaches it he suddenly begins to remember events that took place when he was seven years old.

As a child the death of his parents’ lodger caused a cataclysm that enabled a malevolent force to enter our reality, a force that threatened to tear his family apart, and his only hope was the three women who lived on that old farm, the three generations of Hemstock women, including old mother Hemstock who claimed to have seen the Moon created, and Lettie, who appeared to be a girl of eleven, but also said she’s been eleven for a very long time and who claimed the duck pond was in fact an ocean.

As with the vast majority of Gaiman’s work, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantastical story of powerful, magical creatures, and what happens when these creatures of magic intersect with the ordinary world. There is no doubt that Gaiman is a fantastic writer, but at times the whimsical nature of his writing has frustrated me, take Anansi Boys for example, an intriguing idea but one that increasingly meandered and didn’t seem to go anywhere.

By contrast whilst The Ocean at the End of the Lane is of course whimsical, it also marries this with a clear narrative. Though told for the most part from the perspective of a seven year old boy this isn’t really a children’s book; in fact in his notes at the end Gaiman states that this is a book about a child for adults, contrasting it with another book he wrote at the same time which was a story about an adult but for children.

Gaiman writes the point of view character to perfection, channelling memories of his own childhood and intertwining them with things that clearly did not happen to him as a child (although reading his notes it came as a surprise to see that certain elements were factual) but it would be wrong to claim this is completely autobiographical, Gaiman has instead mined his own memories of being a seven year old boy in order to tell the story of a different seven year old boy.

There is a reason so much good horror involves children, from the perspectives of adults children are much more vulnerable, but also we remember what it was like to be children, remember all the things that didn’t make sense at the time, and the things that frightened us. We may have fears as adults but they are tangible, they are, unfortunately, for the most part quite real fears, but when we were children we were also conscious of more nebulous dangers, the monster under the bed, the shadow on the wall, the fear of being abandoned by our parents and Gaiman feeds these childhood terrors into his story.

Which isn’t to say this is a horror story, it’s not, it is a fantasy but, like the best fairy-tale, there is an element of the horrific within it and at times it is a frightening read because Gaiman so deftly puts us in the mind of our protagonist, so when he is afraid of the creature that threatens to consume his family, we’re afraid too.

And what a creature, the initial descriptions of this otherworldly thing as a sail flapping in the wind, only fabric with a face, are terrifyingly magical, but when it assumes a more conventional form it becomes all the more frightening.

But this is also a story about humour, and love, and hope and about the nature of memory.
Gaiman’s prose is a joy; being both lean and eloquent at the same time, and you can almost feel the time spent agonising over the choice of each and every word—as a writer I wish I had that level of patience.

A lovely little tale that will remind you of childhood, not only the bad things but also the good, the way as a child you form immediate and intimate bonds with other children, the way every new experience, however mundane, can seem magical.

The duck pond might seem shallow, and this novel may seem brief, but both are much deeper than you could possibly imagine.

  1. It sounds intriguing, but I’ve been disappointed by Gaiman so often I think I’ll pass on this one – the only thing he’s done that I like is Good Omens, and that’s half-Pratchett.

    • starkers70 says:

      he is a curious one because my opinion seems to vary so much. I mean he’s written two Dr Who episodes, one of which was a bona fide classic, the other of which was terrible when he effectively turned the Cybermen into the Borg!

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