I’ve been a pretty big fan of Neil Gaiman for over decade now, thanks to his novels, screenplays, and most especially, comic books. Indeed, off the back of his Sandman work alone, he ranks alongside the likes of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison as one of my all time favourite comic book scribes.
I’d been meaning to read Gaiman’s most recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, ever since it came out in 2013, but as so often happens, I ended up never quite getting around to it. This would change Christmas just gone, however, when I found myself with an Amazon gift card to redeem, and Gaiman’s name still fresh in my mind thanks to BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of his and Terry Prachett’s Good Omens. For fear of delaying yet again, I made sure that the first purchase I made with that gift card was the Kindle edition of The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
24 hours later, I had finished the book – it’s a fairly slender volume, and I would’ve got through it in half that time, if not for pesky distractions like full-time work – and I can safely say that it was faux-money well spent. The Ocean at the End of the Lane deserves all the critical and commercial success it has received, and with its winning blend of lyrical beauty and raw insight, sits proudly alongside Gaiman’s other great novels.
What’s it about?
The story opens with an unnamed narrator returning home for a funeral, who finds himself sitting by a duck pond (or is it an ocean?) and remembering the events of his childhood. Once a bookish youth with no friends, the narrator relates how he made the acquaintance of enigmatic but kind-hearted 11 year-old Lettie Hempstock one morning, following less than ideal circumstances (let’s just say that there is a dead body involved).
The narrator’s friendship with Lettie and her family allows him to be drawn into a world of magic, but also exposes him to dark powers recently awakened (remember those less than ideal circumstances I mentioned), and he is ultimately forced to confront monsters both otherworldly and human that will challenge and reshape his understanding of the universe.
A masterful mixture of light and darkness
If the above synopsis makes The Ocean at the End of the Lane sound like an intense read that requires you to be in the right frame of mind to digest – please, disabuse yourself of this notion.
Gaiman is a natural storyteller, and he is able to gently draw the reader in thanks to an authorial voice that is both conversational and poetic, and his distinctive style deftly melds relatable “real-world” characters and settings with the supernatural in a way that seems totally natural.
True, this style isn’t for everyone; after I loaned a copy of Gaiman’s acclaimed novel American Gods to my sister, with whom I share generally similar taste in fiction, she provided me with a muted review, saying simply, “It was good” (but behind this I could sense the unspoken ending to her brief critique“…but weird”).
Yes, Gaiman’s mixture of the mundane and the magical can prove a bit too out there even for fans of a good fantasy yarn, but for those of us who do appreciate the dream-like quality of the worlds he creates, books like The Ocean at the End of the Lane is filled with numerous delights.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
One such treasure is enjoying how perfectly Gaiman captures the paradoxically naive and knowing viewpoint of a child.
Gaiman mines the gulf between childhood and maturity for all it’s worth, reminding us that whilst there are many things that children aren’t capable of understanding – the sexual liaison the narrator witnesses between his father and main antagonist Ursula Monkton, for instance – there are other things (like magic) that they grasp far better than the adults around them.
He is also able to use the child versus adult dynamic to explore the concept of self identity, which is of course something that develops quite significantly in the time between when we are still a gestating youngster (as the narrator is for much of the book) to when we are all grown up and fully developed (a point the narrator has well and truly reached by the bookend sequences set in the present, if you overlook his rather underdeveloped heart!).
Gaiman goes further than the obvious observation that our identities crystallise with age, however, and examines identity on a much deeper level. In a poignant moment, Lettie teaches our protagonist one of the most important lessons any human being can learn: that despite how they might manifest physically, a person’s looks never truly reflect who they are on the inside.
This idea is illustrated most prominently by malignant otherworldy “flea” Ursula Monkton, who appears outwardly as a beautiful young woman, but who is in actuality much closer spiritually to an ancient, rotting canvas tent (and a spooky one at that).
Conversely, in some of the most stunning imagery in a novel filled with gorgeous mental pictures, the true self of unremarkable, freckle-nosed Lettie is unveiled as eternal, ethereal silken sheets filled with countless flickering candles, a form which best fits her brave and graceful soul.
This theme comes full circle when the narrator realises that while he might be able to see Ursula Monkton, Lettie or anyone else as they really are, the one thing he (and the rest of us mere mortals) will never be capable of gazing upon is our own true self.
Whilst this final revelation stands as a powerful comment on self-identity – seriously, I could probably write 500 words more on this point alone – it also leads into the last key theme of the book (at least as I see it): the inherent inability of human beings to wrap their heads around the big picture that is the universe.
Partly this is expressed between the different viewpoints of children, who can see magic – and even then, some seem less inclined than others, as in the case of the narrator’s sister – and adults who can’t, but it reaches much wider than that by the end of the novel.
Here, Gaiman (through Lettie) returns to a recurring theme through his work (certainly, it crops up in The Sandman), that of everyone being capable of possessing all the knowledge of the universe, but having to give up this omniscience in order to make our existence both possible and worthwhile.
Someone like Lettie might know considerably more about the nature of reality than anyone else on the planet, but in order to share the plane we inhabit, she cannot know it all, something she recognises and embraces as the blessing that it is. As she so adequately sums it up:
“Be boring, knowing everything”.
This absence of complete answers carries over into the text itself, as Gaiman never fully explains much of what happens in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and readers looking for a clear account of who (and what) Lettie and her family are, or those seeking a blueprint for how the supernatural aspects of the story work, will most likely reach the end of the novel dissatisfied.
But this isn’t a work designed to provide answers that will only diminish the magical elements it contains (indeed the absence of answers, and the wonder this creates in readers, only reinforces Gaiman’s point regarding the merit of imperfect knowledge). Rather, The Ocean at the End of the Lane asks the reader to become lost in its engaging story, and in return, supplies them with the important truths at the heart of the themes discussed above.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
All in all, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is yet another brilliant entry in Neil Gaiman’s impressive pop culture catalogue, and a fine example of the potential for popular entertainment to be compelling on the surface, as well as artfully executed and thematically rich.