By Sarah Metts | Contributor Published: 07/14/2013 10:00 am EST
Publish date: June 18, 2013 Publisher: William Morrow | Buy Book
“Fairy tales are full of transformations. Princes become frogs, mermaids lose their tails and become servant girls, pumpkins become coaches, babies become pigs, and then they all convert back again. It’s a very fluid world.”
Neil Gaiman’s newest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, has been described by several reviewers as a fairy tale for adults. It’s not the typical “happily ever after”, the story being a grown man’s remembrance of terrifying events in his childhood. There is no shortage of darkness to match the wonderful experiences that our protagonist faces in his youth. And in these memories, Gaiman details the loss of childhood at the hands of time.
Our nameless narrator returns to his hometown, late into his forties, to attend a funeral. Back home, he finds himself wandering towards familiar roads and ends up visiting the Hempstock farm at the end of the lane he lived on. As he stares into the fish pond, memories surface from the dark depths and lay fresh for readers to experience.
Within the first two pages, we are introduced to the narrator as he is attending his seventh birthday party with no guests present. But even though his classmates didn’t come, he resides with a loving family and receives new books and a loyal, soft kitten. In his books, the boy delves into fantastic stories and finds peace. “Books were safer than people anyway,” he comments.
The story then takes a sinister turn. A lodger who is renting a room from the boy’s parents steals the family car, drives down the lane and takes his life.
Not far into the novel, the boy is standing, gazing at the dead man lying in the back of the family car, when he hears a voice. Lettie Hempstock, who lives in the farm at the end of the lane with Old Mrs. Hempstock and Ginnie Hempstock, offers to take the boy to the farm to wait for help.
But the Hempstocks know more than the police do about the suicide. Their mannerisms suggest their roots are ancient and their apparent youth is rendered from some deeper power. Throughout the novel, their knowledge provides the sword and shield from the coming evil, sinister forces that find their way into the boy’s home.
The boy accompanies Lettie to confront the evil spawned from the lodger’s dying wish, which is now seeping into the neighboring houses. The boy faces a strange creature that fights back, breaking herself into pieces and attaching to the boy.
Traveling with the boy, the evil takes the boy’s world apart, ensnaring his father and sister in its charm. With his family against him, the boy sees that adults, once believed to be strong and all-knowing, can be manipulated. When the protectors become weak and take a knee under the pressure of desire and fear, the boy must take matters into his own hands or find help to fight evil.
The boy finds sanctuary with the Hempstocks, who are unshaken by the present evil. Their strange family follows the old, forgotten ways, mending time and calling forth aid to defeat the spiteful spirit terrorizing the boy’s house.
There are many fantastic sights that Gaiman masterfully constructs in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He does not explain everything that is happening—he describes it as the boy experiences it, bringing the reader to the front seat of the roller coaster. The reader is not allowed to stand back—you are there with the boy as this horrible creature chases him through a field, his hope slowly draining, or sitting beside the fire with him in the warm glow of the Hempstock farm. To enjoy the story, you can’t fight what’s happening; you must immerse yourself in it.
This is a story for adults, even though the protagonist is so young. At the heart of this novel is the idea that children experience frightening things that eventually fade as they mature into adulthood. Gaiman establishes this idea with a quote from author Maurice Sendak at the beginning of The Ocean at the End of the Lane:
“I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I musn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”
Referring to the quote in an interview in the July/August edition of Poets & Writers, Gaiman explains:
“It’s not there ironically; it’s not there as a clever commentary. It’s the idea that kids really do know things that would terrify adults. I think it’s only a certain amount of amnesia that allows adults to function.”
In the epilogue, the narrator leaves us with different thoughts, nonchalantly dismissing all he has relayed to us in his memories. It’s a sad conclusion, leaving the reader in the midst of dramatic irony, questioning if it happened at all (and for me, hoping it had).
In response to this, I believe that some of the more unbelievable and enjoyable feelings of childhood can fade as well. I remember being convinced that, at the age of six, on a clear summer day, that I had the ability to hover above the ground. Every detail of the day is clear—I was on my grandmother’s lawn, looking at the school bus she drove for work, when a large bee appeared. To get away, I leaped into the air where I slowly rose and hovered, falling slowly after reaching the zenith of the jump. I could feel the tingle of excitement. But, at some point in my adolescence, a voice in my head told me it was all a dream. I haven’t been able to get back to that feeling, that sensation.
It’s been years since I remembered that magic and Gaiman’s novel has brought it back to the foreground. The Ocean at the End of the Lane allowed me to believe, for just a moment, that I did float, that something wonderful happened long ago.
Summary:AMAZING: Gaiman’s novel is a fairy tale for adults who have lost or are still connected to that inner child, or for any fan of fairy tales. It's a short read that is easily digested within a day's time.