by Neil Gaiman
I don’t really know what Gaiman meant to say with this book. I’ve thought about it, and I’ve got some ideas. But keep in mind that I know literally nothing.
I think that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about the connections between who we are as children and who we grow up to be. The book starts with a man- our narrator- coming back to his childhood home, and then visiting his friend Lettie Hempstock’s house down the street, though she has long since moved away. From there, he starts reminiscing about his life at age seven, when his family had just moved into the neighborhood.
As in the only other Gaiman book I’ve read, American Gods, there are fantasy elements, but Gaiman’s gift is his ability to construct two discrete worlds, one real and one fantastic, and then blur the lines between them. In the case of Ocean, our narrator remembers many things that could not have been real, namely a monster that comes into his life first as a worm in his foot and subsequently in the form of his family’s new housekeeper, Ursula Monkton. Housekeepers are real, but they’re not foot-worms. So I’m guessing there’s something else going on here. Gaiman heavily implies that the narrator’s memory is compensating for something in his past, filling in gaps or erasing unwanted events. He leaves open the question, though, of whether the magic was made up in a seven-year-old’s imagination to make life seem less horrible, or whether the magic was real, only to be forgotten by a more world-weary adult.
Beyond questioning the narrator’s memory, Gaiman invites us to compare his childhood and adulthood personalities. Throughout each, he’s a stoic; taking bad news well, not expecting too much, and describing the events of his life with little or no emotion. Kid or adult, he seems unable to relate to most people, and has a hard time making friends. But the narrator’s childhood shows another side of his personality, perhaps one that he still retains; he is capable of strong feeling. This is shown both in his love for his new friend, Lettie, and his utter hatred for Ursula Monkton. As a child, he sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him, often exposing him to potential dangers. It makes one wonder whether he consciously chose, as he grew up, to shed his emotion and become a person who couldn’t be hurt by others. We never delve too deeply into the narrator’s adult life, so it’s kind of up in the air.
I think when it comes down to it, The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells us that childhood is more important- and more real- than we’d often like to believe. Whether or not we interpret the magical events as real, the narrator’s memories of Lettie Hempstock and Ursula Monkton had a real impact on his life, helping to create the person he grew up to be. He may have concocted a make-believe back story for straightforward events, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand or doesn’t remember what ‘actually’ happened. The events of the novel could be chalked up to a child’s imagination, but Gaiman indicates that just because something is imaginary, that doesn’t make it irrelevant.
Ocean benefits from Gaiman’s simple and straightforward writing, and I mean that in a good way. Whether describing his disappointing seventh birthday party, or the appearance of a huge monster in the sky, the narrative never gets derailed. Gaiman really doesn’t need or want to distract you from the story in the narrator’s head; this story stands on its own. Frilly language or elaborate subplots would blunt the sharp focus that makes the book so powerful.
I started this blog partially thinking that my ‘reviews’ would reflect what I would tell someone who was asking me about a book. When it comes to Ocean, I was somewhat at a loss as to what I would say. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I want to give you a sense of what the book is like and what it’s about. I think that the easiest advice would be to just read the book; it’s short and simple, not a huge commitment. So yeah, as long as you’re not completely allergic to fantasy, I’d just say go for it.
Gaiman’s written a really good novel here. Simpler than American Gods, and possibly better. Check it out for yourself.