‘I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.’ She thought for a moment. Then she smiled. ‘Except for Granny, of course.’The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins with an implied parental death. Our unnamed narrator is driving around aimlessly on his way back from a funeral, so he can have some time alone before he heads to his sister’s house to shake hands with more mourners. Or at least he thinks he’s driving around aimlessly: when he finds himself in the area of rural Sussex where he grew up, he realises that this is where he’d been going all along. He gets out of the car, walks up to the farm at the end of the lane — a place so old it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book — and winds up sitting in a bench besides Lettie Hempstock’s duckpond-sized ocean, remembering a dark, momentous thing that happened over forty years earlier, when he was a seven-year-old boy.
The above all takes place in the brief prologue to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I won’t get into what happens once the story actually gets started — not because the book is particularly spoilable but because it’s fun to find out for yourself, and anyway I don’t really need to get into it to tell you what I loved about this novel.
Interpreting any successful narrative is a bit like seeing light through a prism: a story will reveal new themes and layers depending on the eyes of the individual reader through which it’s being filtered. What this particular reader saw here was what is perhaps best described as a dark, wistful, mythologized account of the process through which a constant hunger for stories gets lodged into your heart. This hunger is part of what keeps pulling you towards a bookish life, but it’s also something that has the potential to separate you from your social world.
I called The Ocean at the End of the Lane a dark account, and this darkness was something that interested me: I’m suspicious of the argument that a life mainly devoted to reading and writing is a misspent life; a half-lived life; a safe choice that keeps you away from the real business of getting out there and having experiences (but then again I’m not above occasionally being suspicious of my own suspicion, for reasons best examined elsewhere). It would of course be immensely simplistic to claim that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story that buys into this kind of argument — what it is, rather, is a story about the very human process of examining how our lives have unfolded: the paths we did and did not take, the crucial moments that set us on them, the inescapable incidents that shaped who we are. It’s about ambivalence and our constant grasping with the fact that there will always be losses for every gain; it’s about wondering whether we pass or fail at being a person, except, as Old Mrs Hempstock so wisely says, there isn’t really any failing or passing. But there is re-examining and searching and wondering, which is something human beings will always do.
This storytelling creation myth is one of two aspect of The Ocean at the End of the Lane that particularly stood out to me. The other, which you’ll no doubt see remarked upon on several reviews, is the perfect balance between an adult’s remembrance and a seven-year-old boy’s view of the world it manages to achieve. There is a noticeable adult consciousness behind the narrative voice in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and deliberately so. But there’s also a deep awareness of what it feels like to be a powerless and fearful child, with limited decision-making power and at the mercy of unpredictable adults. Much of the narrative’s humanity and power to move us derive from this unsentimental portrayal of an unhappy and helpless childhood.
As you can perhaps tell from the quote I opened this post with, there was something about The Ocean at the End of the Lane that put me in mind of Verdigris Deep. Maybe it’s just the fact that I read both the same week, or maybe my infatuation with Frances Hardinge’s writing is causing me to see echoes of it in my most beloved authors. But look: both books feature — mild spoiler alert — supernatural beings who wish to help humans but make a mess out of it due to their inadequate grasp of what being human is like; and more importantly, both deal with the unmapped boundaries between childhood and adulthood and with the complex process of crossing from one to the other.
The focus of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is on childhood, but there’s just as much about adulthood lurking between the lines, in the novel’s negative space. The quote I opened with, about there not being any real adults, of course only makes sense if you define adulthood in very narrow terms, but that’s exactly the point. The small, quiet revelation in the epilogue draws attention to the fact that not having everything figured out is part and parcel of what being an adult truly means, and we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to acknowledge it. We
I want to finish this post with two comments that aren’t really about the book, but are about my experience of reading it. The first will only make sense to those of you who’ve already read it: I started The Ocean at the End of the Lane very early on Sunday and read it back to back that morning. I only put it down once, at about 10am, to go make myself some breakfast. There was honey and cream in the house, and so I had it with my porridge for the first time ever — it was absolutely perfect, and somehow I think I’ll always treasure the fact that this is a part of my memory of first reading this book.
The second comment has to do with the fact that reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a bit like a homecoming for me. You know how with the work of authors or bands or other artists you really, really love, the ones you’ve loved for so long that they have become a sort of spiritual home and an essential part of your inner world, there will be little things — a turn of phrase, a few seconds of a song, a movie scene, you name it — that really get you because they seem to somehow condense everything you love about them? Well, almost everything about The Ocean at the End of the Lane was like that. I don’t know where I’d place it on my personal Neil Gaiman ranking — it’s probably too soon to answer that question, and at any rate I’m not particularly interested in it. But I do know I love how immediately familiar it felt, because it was so obviously the work of someone who has mattered hugely to me for such a long time. Everything, from the imagery to the way the plot is informed by fairy tales and mythology to the rhythm of the prose, made me think, I know this. It’s pure, condensed Neil-ness, and it feels like home.
Memorable bits (some with spoilers):
I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.They read it too: We Be Reading, things she read, The Novel World
Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and dangerous fairies?
I was a seven-year-old boy, and my feet were scratched and bleeding. I had just wet myself. And the thing that floated above me was huge and greedy, and it wanted to take me to the attic, and when it tired of me it would make my daddy kill me.
Lettie Hempstock’s hand in my hand made me braver. But Lettie was just a girl, even if she was a big girl, even if she was eleven, even if she had been eleven for a very long time. Ursula Monkton was an adult. It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win.
I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock.
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