The wilderness of middle age
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
By Neil Gaiman Headline, 256pp, $27.99
Nopens with an epigraph from Maurice Sendak. ‘‘ I remember my own childhood vividly . . . I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.’’
It’s an apposite choice, suggestive of the novel’s larger interest in memory and childhood. But it’s also — like much else in this brief novel — misleading, not least because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a novel as much about the wilderness of middle age and forgetting as childhood and memory.
The novel begins in the aftermath of a funeral, in this case that of one of the narrator’s parents (like the narrator’s name, and indeed any number of small but salient details, it is never made clear which one). Hoping to kill an hour or two before the wake, he heads off into the Sussex countryside in his car, only to find himself back at the house where he grew up.
The house is gone, of course, cleared away for a housing estate, but as he continues down the lane he finds himself remembering his former neighbour Lettie Hempstock, a girl who lived on the farm at the end of the lane with her mother and grandmother, and who had a pond she said was an ocean. That memory dredges EIL Gaiman’s first novel for adults in almost eight years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, up another, of the time when he was seven and something made its way into this world from another inside his body, and it fell to Lettie to save him.
The details of what follows are complex and occasionally disturbing, involving a creature made of rags, a faceless grey thing as tall as a country church, a worm that is really a passage between worlds that burrows its way into the narrator’s foot and, perhaps most chillingly of all, a malevolent au pair who is not only not really an au pair but not even really human.
At times these elements seem to recall aspects of Gaiman’s deliciously creepy 2002 novel Coraline, in which a bored girl finds a passage that leads to a mirror-world hungry to have her for its own. Once again there is a creature that looks human but is in fact an empty, needy thing that means harm to this world; once again there is something disturbing about the way the creature insinuates itself into the lives of the family at the novel’s centre.
Yet while there are unsettling moments in The Ocean at the End of the Lane — the removal of the worm from the narrator’s foot, for instance, or the scene in which the narrator’s father attempts to drown the narrator’s sevenyear-old self: the still point around which the novel turns — the truly scary moments are not the confrontations with the rag creature or the Hunger Birds Lettie summons to destroy it. They are the half-obscured portrait of the breakdown of the narrator’s family, and of his father’s violence towards him.
Described in these terms, The Ocean at the End of the Lane probably sounds a little grim, something it most definitely is not. It is a book enlivened by the sort of delicious wrongfooting of reality that is Gaiman’s specialty (‘‘How old are you, really?’’ the narrator asks Lettie at one point, and when told she is 11, pauses and asks: ‘‘ How long have you been 11 for?’’) and by a thrillingly evoked sense that there are other deeper, darker, more dangerous worlds hidden within our own. Nowhere is this more evident than in the book’s climax, in which the narrator’s child-self steps into Lettie’s ocean, and in a series of dizzying riffs, glimpses the workings of the universe: I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.
Part of Gaiman’s genius is his understanding that this sort of enchantment is a sort of truth as well, a recognition that to live fully is to accept there is no love without loss, no true life without death, no wonder without pain.
Something similar could be said of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, at least superficially. Yet there is also something rather more ambiguous at work in it, a sense the trauma that has so unsettled its narrator’s life remains unresolved, and that the many gaps in the narrator’s account are symptomatic of a more profound psychic dissonance. In the end it is this quality that lends this strange and deceptively simple novel its power.
Neil Gaiman understands that enchantment is a sort of truth