Jun 17, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman UK cover

‘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 all periodically go back to the warm, welcoming farmhouse kitchen of our imagination for reassurance. We all feel the need to assess and re-assess our lives. It’s only that we forget, perhaps, just how very human this questioning is.

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.
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.
They read it too: We Be Reading, things she read, The Novel World


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bermudaonion said...

I wonder if I'll get the "negative space" aspects of the novel.

Iris said...

Now I am curious about the reference to that breakfast!

You make this sound wonderful and I'm oddly moved by your homecoming reference. I am so happy to hear you got to feel that <3

carol said...

I have this sitting on the shelf. I'm looking forward to it, but worried to. I've only loved one Neil Gaiman books, the others I've read have been okay and I'm hoping my expectations aren't too high.

Jenny @ Jenny's Books said...

I AM GOING TO READ THIS SO HARD. I'm seeing Neil Gaiman speak about it tomorrow, at which point I will also acquire this book, and I could not be more excited. I thought I would save it and read it on vacation because it feels like a perfect vacation read. Maybe if there is a stormy day -- wouldn't that be ideal?

Vasilly said...

I love that last quote. I read this book and decided I need to reread it before I can write my thoughts on it. There's something about it - the setting or tone that just makes this book feel so real, so alive.

Chris Howard said...

What a FANTASTIC review Ana :) I can't wait to read it!! I preordered a signed copy and should get mine tomorrow! I'm glad to hear that it had that feeling of "home" to it :) Doesn't that always feel great? I found the prologue and first two chapters last night online and read that and I could already feel that. And got to read just what you meant about the porridge with the berries and cream :) I think I'll have to have that one day too. *hugs this review* and *hugs Ana* and *hugs Neil*

Amy said...

I've got to stop by my bookstore and pick this one up this week. Any book that's described as home, is a book for me. Amazing review, Ana.

Beth F said...

I have this one already. I was afraid to read too much of your review because, as you said, "it's fund to find out for yourself."

Amy said...

omg Ana! this review!

I have had bad luck with Neil Gaiman books which I know is not what you want to read on your gushing review, but I love absolutely everything you've said here SO MUCH.

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

yeeee. That pings me enough to make me think I should maybe try his books again, specifically this book.

Also all that you wrote about homecoming, yes I get it and I love the way you've expressed it. You have such a gift with words. :)

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.

This is also gorgeous, sigh.

Jeanne said...

I have a lunch date with my daughter today and we're meeting first at the campus bookstore to buy this book. She will get to read it before me, because I have rehearsal (for The Music Man) from 6-11, and there's no way I'm starting it after 11 pm.

Arrela said...

I read it partly on a bus, partly on a subway, partly on a plane (ugh got up at 3.30 onl to miss my plane ugh so much stress), partly in a café and partly in a park, so no porridge with cream and honey for me, sadly. But I did spend a great amount of time wanting porridge, so I can imagine that that was a wonderful meal :)

I turned 21 the day I started reading it, which freaked me out a bit because I do not feel like an adult, and what it said about childhood and adulthood really stood out to me, maybe partly because of that. The passages you quote were some of my favourite bits too.

This is actually only my third Gaiman book, no, wait, fourth with Coraline. I am contemplating whether to bump the rest of his books up my reading list now.

Joanna said...

I love the quote you opened with, it's so true, isn't it? There are no grown ups in the world, though some people are very good at pretending!

Mumsy said...

Ana, you always make the most insightful points. ALWAYS. It's why we all read your blog, you're an insights genius. I am so eager to read this, and I hope it is not TOO dark, and I too am suspicious of that loving-to-read narrative, and the capriciousness of adults with children is STILL bewildering to me, even though I am now an adult. (I always thought that opening quote was correct until, oh, maybe around 50 or so, I realized I had really, truly, inside of me, become an adult.)

Cheryl @ Tales of the Marvelous said...

I've been hearing about this one on Gaiman's Twitter feed for months... It sounds fascinating, and thank you for your wonderful reflections!

I love that quote you opened with. It feels to me like a reverse of the opening of Peter Pan in some ways.

Clare said...

Lovely, lovely review, Ana. As a reader-response theorist at heart, I love you how describe how we interpret books.

I also loathe the argument that a bookish (or fannish) life is a life half-lived; it's why I'm very tentative about Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, since the ad copy flat out asks if the protagonist can "mature" out of fandom (like a normal person hint hint). I'm particularly sensitive to it at the moment, as I'm getting quite deep into Star Trek, which I consider the mother fandom.

For me, books (and fandom) are how I live a fuller life. It's how I live lives other than my own, to see and experience how non-Norman warrior princesses feel the world. This does not mean that the non-bookish are not living scanty lives, of course; everyone must find what makes their lives full. My life is fuller by the stories I consume and the stories I tell back at them.

Laura said...

"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?"

This. Thiiiiis. You articulated this perfectly. I think (I hope!) that all readers have a few of these writers, the ones who feel like old friends. I just finished this book, and it feels like...I dunno. Like I got to see a more vulnerable of someone I've known a long time. Like we just got down to the real nitty gritty for the first time.

I love that you'll always have the memory of that oatmeal during your first read of the book. It's rare, in my experience, to have that kind of tangible memory to go along with a reading experience, and it just makes it stick even more. :)

Gautam said...

In theme and tone, this seems a little like Stardust. Are there similarities?

judy said...

Thank you for your perfect review. I haven't read the book yet because I will be seeing Neil Gaiman next Thursday when he is giving a talk in Glendale, CA. For the price of admission I get a signed copy and I have left the next day unscheduled so I can read the book. I am sooo excited about it all!! And I love all fans of Neil but especially the ones who blog about his books:)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

"not having everything figured out is part and parcel of what being an adult truly means."

So very true. So much of your review was just perfect for me. The book was so completely Neil. Somewhere along the way I forgot that the reason I'd originally loved Neil was his books. I read them one after another, then I read his blog and saw his song collaborations, etc. There was something wonderful about sitting down and consuming this and being reminded why his writing resonates with me.

p.s. I'm jealous you ate porridge while reading it!

Heather said...

I get that "homecoming" feeling every time I read The Graveyard Book. That book just wraps me up in its warm, comforting shell and makes me feel so happy and loved. Does that sound weird?

Like Vasilly, I feel like I need to read it again to properly express my feelings on Ocean, but I do know I loved it. I listened to the audiobook and, as Andi says, Neil's Buttery Voice just carried me away. To the point where I feel like I maybe missed some things. Good thing I have the book too!

Loved this review Ana, loved it to itty bitty Ursala Munkton pieces.

Susan said...

when you wrote about the homecoming to an author, that's how I feel about Charles de Lint, or Stephen King, when they write something in a certain way, a turn of phrase or image that is theirs particularly. They both are imprinted deeply into me. I love how you are able to show this about Neil's work for you, and on you (in you?). I have to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it has been on my wish list since it came out. I think I am going to enjoy this one very much.

I love how you describe eating the porridge with cream and honey for the first time - something deeply comforting about this food (I have it with cream too, and it's so luxurious, isn't it?), and to have it experienced along with the book for the first time - lovely.

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