Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Review

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Written by: Neil Gaiman
Paperback: 181 pages
Publisher: William Morrow Books
Language: English
June 2013
Genre: Fiction

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. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.


“Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren't.”

I fell in love with Neil Gaiman at a young age after a friend gave me the first few Sandman comics all while I was currently fangirling over Tori Amos. I was hooked and Tori’s nods to Neil began to make a lot more sense. I loved the stories and Dave McKean’s artwork. And then I began to read his books: Neverwhere, Stardust, Smoke and Mirrors, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, Coraline, his Marvel 1602 and absolutely adore the film Mirrormask as it was another collaboration between McKean and Gaiman again. Finally, “The Doctor’s Wife” episode of Doctor Who is one of the best Who episodes ever. So in saying all of that I may be a bit biased when it comes to Gaiman’s work. Like any author there are some of his works that I am not overly fond of, American Gods to name one, but considering his entire bibliography one or four is not bad considering. Plus have you read Neil’s blog? He is one of the coolest cats around and I love catching up with him via his blog. But I digress…heavily.

Why I didn’t pick up Ocean at the End of the Lane up right away I still don’t know. The Geek Girl Adventure Club decided this would be our inaugural book for the club last month. Reviews were mixed. Mine was probably to be expected considering a few of us are making a trek to go “Spend an Evening with Neil” a couple of hours away from here. However, I am going to do my best to be a good little reviewer. Who knows I might surprise you by my answers.

It began as a short story but Amanda, Neil’s wife, wanted to know the rest of the story. I am glad she asked. The story begins as a middle aged man returns home for a funeral. Headed back to his childhood playing ground, he finds himself drawn to places he had almost forgotten. Without really knowing where he is headed he finds himself at the home of Lettie Hempstock, his childhood friend and as he sits down by the pond he begins to remember…everything.

‘Are you here to see Lettie?’ Mrs Hempstock asked.

‘Is she here?’ The idea surprised me. She had gone somewhere, hadn’t she? America?

The old woman shook her head. ‘I was just about to put the kettle on. Do you fancy a spot of tea?’

I hesitated. Then I said that, if she didn’t mind, I’d like it if she could point me towards the duckpond first.


I knew Lettie had had a funny name for it. I remembered that. ‘She called it the sea. Something like that.’

The old woman put the cloth down on the dresser. ‘Can’t drink the water from the sea, can you? Too salty. Like drinking life’s blood. Do you remember the way? You can get to it around the side of the house. Just follow the path.’

If you’d asked me an hour before, I would have said no, I did not remember the way. I do not even think I would have remembered Lettie Hempstock’s name. But standing in that hallway, it was all coming back to me. Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me. Had you told me that I was seven again, I might have half believed you, for a moment.

‘Thank you.’

I walked into the farmyard. I went past the chicken coop, past the old barn and along the edge of the field, remembering where I was, and what was coming next, and exulting in the knowledge. Hazels lined the side of the meadow. I picked a handful of the green nuts, put them in my pocket.

The pond is next, I thought. I just have to go around this shed, and I’ll see it.

I saw it and felt oddly proud of myself, as if that one act of memory had blown away some of the cobwebs of the day.

The pond was smaller than I remembered. There was a little wooden shed on the far side, and, by the path, an ancient, heavy wood-and-metal bench. The peeling wooden slats had been painted green a few years ago. I sat on the bench, and stared at the reflection of the sky in the water, at the scum of duckweed at the edges, and the half-dozen lily pads. Every now and again I tossed a hazelnut into the middle of the pond, the pond that Lettie Hempstock had called …

It wasn’t the sea, was it?

She would be older than I am now, Lettie Hempstock. She was only a handful of years older than I was back then, for all her funny talk. She was eleven. I was … what was I? It was after the bad birthday party. I knew that. So I would have been seven.

I wondered if we had ever fallen in the water. Had I pushed her into the duckpond, that strange girl who lived in the farm at the very bottom of the lane? I remembered her being in the water. Perhaps she had pushed me in too.

Where did she go? America? No, Australia. That was it. Somewhere a long way away.

And it wasn’t the sea. It was the ocean.

Lettie Hempstock’s ocean.

This begins the tale of the Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Things I loved: This novel is very distinctly Gaiman. I love the opening. I too would want a book on my birthday cake. I remember being a bookish, shy, young woman always moving from base to base scared to make friends because I knew we may not stay long. So I understand our narrator. “I lay on the bed and lost myself in the stories. I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyway.” Granted I came out of my shell as I grew up but it took a while and my imagination and books were always my best of friends.

It’s a throwback to your childhood where everything was magic, but then maybe that was just me. Where an empty refrigerator box was a castle for my brother and I and when I truly thought that my rabbit Peter followed me around because I too had powers like Sheena of the Jungle. Of course with Gaiman this childhood coming of age fable is dark, surreal, and full of the impossible. Lettie is the neighborhood girl whom our narrator befriends, the one who may have been eleven for a very long time and show you a world where a duck pond is an ocean and where you can pluck kittens out of the ground like carrots using their tails. But this world Lettie shows him is also full of danger.

The imagery is wonderful in this book from the magic in everyday objects to literal cat tails in the ground. I loved the mother, maiden, crone aspect between the Hempstock women and the importance that they have in the story. I loved that the monsters were not only the rag lady of myth, but the dark bits that everyone has. Sure there were very distinct monsters here, like the worm, but the real ones were very human. Of course Ursula would be the bad guy…her name is Ursula after all. She just wants to give everyone what they want…money, sex, etc. And if you are against her, by the gods you better run. She wants what she wants and do not get in her way. Though I hate it when the adult is evil and no one seems to notice except for the kiddo trope, it was well played here. I think one of the scariest bits was when his father is upset with him, dragging him upstairs to the bathtub. Aware of what he is about to do the father takes off his jacket and neatly places it away from the water. That was terrifying. Good job Neil.

Things I didn’t love so much: Surprisingly this is not one of my favorite Gaiman books. It is not that I didn’t enjoy it, but it feels like a vanity project. You know the ones I am talking about (like Neil Jordan making a Hollywood film so that he can then do great things like Butcher Boy). Its short and I never really found myself fully immersed into the story the way I usually am with his work. Our narrator’s voice is kind of flat to be honest and the character depth I am used to wasn’t fully realized. I think he had the potential to be extremely memorable, but didn’t quite make it. I struggled with really liking him as an adult and sometimes as a child. We never get to know his name and we know that his life is kind of crap (divorce, lackluster job even though he is an artist). Would this be different had he remembered his time with Lettie? While I like that there is a theme of memories throughout and how those memories can easily be changed or how much we forget as we grow into adults. I even like how the world loses that certain magic we believe in as children, but I hate that he had his memory wiped every time. Again I ask would he be different had he been able to remember it all? Would he still be an artist? Would he still be divorced? And by the way, I would love to see his art. I wonder if subconsciously his art might reflect the things he either doesn’t want to remember or he is forced to forget once he leaves the Hempstock Ranch?

One of the things that bugged me as I said earlier is when a character (usually an adult) is beyond evil, out to destroy our protagonist, but not one believes him or her. For me this is especially difficult when the protagonist is a child and no one believes them because of their young age. Ursula is bad news. Not only does she appear young and beautiful and enticing, but she taunts and torments our poor narrator and no one will believe him when he tries to tell them all who and what she really is. Like I said this was done well, but I hate it all the same.

This was still a good book and my quibbles are minor.

“And did I pass?"

The face of the old woman on my right was unreadable in the gathering dusk. On my left the younger woman said, "You don't pass or fail at a being a person, dear.”

Buy or Borrow: Buy. While not my favorite or Gaiman’s best, it is still a great little story.

Part of: Stand Alone

Also Recommended: Read more Gaiman: Good Omens, Stardust, The Graveyard Book, Coraline. And please watch Mirrormask if you have not done so already.

3.25 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks 

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