The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
Fantasy / Magical Realism
Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
A groundbreaking work from a master, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. A stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.
Rating: 4 / 5, and *Unputdownable*
Talk about timing. No sooner had I started writing this review of The Ocean At The End Of The Lane that the book won this year’s Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. I wasn’t even aware it had been nominated. So, now is a perfect time to visit Neil Gaiman’s symbolism-rich story of childhood innocence, friendship, and unspeakable nightmares with resounding consequences. And even though I haven’t read the other nominees, I understand why Gaiman’s was chosen to receive the honor: It leaves the reader chilled to the bone, mouthing the word “Wow” over and over again.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane follows a middle-aged, unnamed man’s recollections of the supernatural events that threatened to destroy him and his family when he was 7 years old. Just before hell breaks loose, he meets the Hempstock family, a trio of extraordinary women with the pluck, wisdom, and magical abilities to help him survive the impending danger. All three ladies are wonderful characters. Old Mrs. Hempstock is the family’s witty, seasoned sage and a grandmother anyone who love to have. Her (seemingly) middle-aged daughter Ginnie becomes a “second mother” to the protagonist with her hospitality, delectable meals, and her own poignant insight. Ginnie’s little girl Lettie, however, is the story’s true ray of sunshine. She embodies many of her elders’ traits while exuding the eagerness and stubborn determination of an 11-year-old. When Lettie reassures the narrator’s younger self that she can and will protect him, she reassures the reader as well. Her sacrifice toward the novel’s end may shock at first, but in hindsight it’s not the least bit out of character.
The protagonist’s 7-year-old self is adorable in his own right. He’s bookish, curious, quiet, and misunderstood by his peers and his younger sister. Lettie and the other Hempstock ladies welcome him with loving hearts, though, and the reader too bonds with him. Gaiman’s simple yet intelligent narrative voice brings you into the boy’s mind and soul: You’ll be fascinated by his inquisitiveness and desire for escapism, sense his frustration as he tries to come to terms with the evil around him, and feel the pulse of his terror at the most crucial moments. At the same time, the novel’s voice also carries Gaiman’s personal style. I had watched Gaiman’s 2012 commencement address at the University of the Arts (an inspiring speech and well worth its 20 minutes, by the way) not long before reading The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. So, as I read the book, sometimes I could hear the author reading it to me, as if the words were very much his own as they were the little boy’s. This didn’t distract me – in fact, it made the experience all the more authentic.
For some reason, though, I can’t see the connection between the South African man’s suicide and the ensuing madness. The only possible link is when Lettie sets off with the boy to stave off the darkness, which eventually enters their world through a physical connection with the boy. But, other than giving the boy a reason to meet the Hempstock family, how does the man’s death trigger the rest of the external plot? Maybe we’re not meant to understand, just as the boy couldn’t. Or, maybe I missed something when I was reading. Or, maybe I answered my own question somewhere in my musings.
That’s the only part about The Ocean At The End Of The Lane that trips me up. Otherwise, this is one of the most haunting and resonant novels I’ve read in a while. It’s also a relatively short read, at less than 200 pages, and one that rushes by if you get engrossed in the story. I also agree with the publisher describing the novel as “elegiac.” By that, I don’t mean that The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is unhappy or depressing. Rather, it’s a brilliantly told allegory about outer and inner darkness, and how – at some point in our lives – we’ll all have to face such a conflict.
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