The work of Neil Gaiman has always defied easy categorization. His graphic novel series The Sandman revolutionized both the comics form and its public perception (it’s not only one of the finest comics of all time, it is one of the finest novels – sans qualifier – of the past quarter-century), while his novels, including American Gods and Anansi Boys, have been international bestsellers.
He writes for young readers (Coraline is a marvel of the writer’s craft, a breathtaking adventure for young readers that is utterly terrifying for adults), children (The Day I Traded My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls are characterized by a surreal whimsy that delights readers of Maurice Sendak and his ilk) and short-story aficionados (A Study in Emerald is a glorious pastiche of both Sherlock Holmes and the Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos).
His two episodes of Doctor Who are the finest of the past few seasons, and his 2012 convocation speech at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts has become an internet sensation, and was just published as a Chip Kidd-designed hardcover as Make Good Art.
Nothing, however, prepares the reader – no matter how devoted, no matter how knowledgeable – for Gaiman’s new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. To say that it is his finest book is too easy. It is, but it is also unlike anything he has ever written before. Truth be told, it is unlike anything anyone has ever written before – though it does reside firmly within the mainstream of writing for children and writing about childhood. At heart, it traces the moment that marks the end of childhood innocence and the transition into adulthood.
But while it deals with the stuff of childhood, it is not a children’s book. Rather, it uses childhood, and the conventions of writing for children and young adults, for adult ends. Much like Lev Grossman, who, in The Magicians, unpacked the tropes of popular fantasy (a college for witches and wizards!) and used The Magician King to explore the “wonders” of a beloved fantasy world (his Fillory is the spitting image of Narnia), Gaiman uses and overturns elements of children’s literature. In his case, it’s a keenly British, Boy’s Own-style magical adventure being simultaneously embraced and subverted to reveal truths that the young are (mercifully) ill equipped to understand. As in Stephen King’s It, or his story The Body, which was adapted to film as Stand By Me, (and, for that matter, N0S 4A2, the stunning new novel by Joe Hill, King’s elder son), the discoveries and realizations of childhood are only fully processed and contextualized long after its end.
As parents like to say, “You’ll understand when you grow up.”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – which Gaiman originally intended as a short story for his wife, musician Amanda Palmer – draws heavily on Gaiman’s own childhood in rural Sussex, England. The novel begins with its unnamed narrator returning to his hometown for a funeral. With a few hours to pass between service and reception, he drives through the town, grown unfamiliar through the passage of years, then out, on a road that becomes more familiar the further he goes: “The slick black road became narrow, windier, became the single-lane track I remembered from my childhood, became packed earth and knobbly, bone-like flints. … It felt like I had driven back in time. That lane was how I remembered it, when nothing else was.”
He stops the car at the end of the lane, in front of the Hempstocks’ farmhouse. When he was a boy, the farm was home to Old Mrs. Hempstock, her daughter Mrs. Hempstock, and 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, who claimed the duck pond in back was the ocean, and that her family had crossed it to come to England. The house, he recalls, was mentioned in the Domesday Book, the 11th-century survey of England, rooting the place in a millennia of history. To the narrator, though, it’s just a house, “in all its dilapidated red-brick glory.” The door is answered by Mrs. Hempstock, who at first the narrator mistakes for her mother; too many years have gone by for Old Mrs. Hempstock to still be the same as he remembers her from his childhood. But that’s not right either: “I remembered Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie’s mother, as a stout woman. This woman was stick-thin, and she looked delicate. She looked like her mother …”
With this, the narrator, and the reader, are slipping imperceptibly, moment by moment, out of the quotidian world and into something other, something deeper. It’s not quite mythology, not quite fairy tale, not quite dream, though it draws on elements of all three (along with history, literature and the like) for its force. The Hempstock women may be just a farm family, but there are secrets beneath the surface, hints of a past they will not share, powers they are slow to reveal. They will remind readers of the pagan Triple Goddess, manifest as maiden, mother and crone, or of the Fates (who were a crucial element of The Sandman), who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life. This resonance, however, may not be conscious; one need not be a scholar of myth or fairy tale to grasp the references. The use of powerful archetypes within such a realistic narrative allows the story to gain power at a sub- (or perhaps super-) logical level: The reader understands deeply, even if she is unable to explain it rationally. Which, in a sense, is a metaphor for the novel’s broader power.
Sitting at the edge of the duck pond, the narrator finds himself remembering pieces of his childhood he had forgotten. As he muses, “Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the story of what happened to the narrator at the age of 7, following the death of the opal miner who his family had taken in as a boarder, which leads to his first introduction to the Hempstocks. No, I’m not going to describe what happens; doing so would unnecessarily rob the reader of the singular joy of discovery. Suffice it to say that Gaiman fans will find their faith reaffirmed, their passion rekindled, while newcomers to the writer will understand, within a few dozen pages, just why their geeky friends rave so.
It is a story of brilliant, at times near-crippling, emotional resonance. Gaiman captures, with deceptive simplicity and writerly prestidigitation, the full flavour of childhood, and the lingering, bittersweet pain of its loss. We can all recall how huge and wondrous the world seemed when we were children, and how small, and at times helpless, we felt within it. It is that memory, elusive and often incomprehensible, that informs our adult feeling, in darker moments, that the world is too small, too flat, too grey. We may be large, but the world we live in is tiny.
Or so it seems, until we are reminded that there was once an ocean in a duck pond, that there were worlds on the other side of the fence we could explore, simply by crossing that border. Without a wrong word, or an overblown sentiment, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is such a reminder. Through Gaiman’s words, we become the children we once were, the innocents we assumed we had lost, this time bringing the awareness of our adult lives with us. That depth, that understanding, makes our innocence all the more precious.
Of course, we must lose it again. That is, after all, what The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about – and yes, you will suffer that pain, that bittersweet tearing of the heart – but the reminder lingers. And lingers. And in the aftermath, in the time after the pages close, the world is a brighter, stranger, bigger place.
Victoria writer Robert J. Wiersema is the author of Before I Wake and Bedtime Story.