The wilder­ness of mid­dle age

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley James Bradley

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

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