The Ocean at the End of the Lane marks the return of one of the fantastic mythmakers of our time. This is a slim work, best read on a sultry summer night to savor its wonder and nostalgia.
Lurking beneath the story of a frightened boy in supernatural peril is the even more frightening tale of the prospect of middle age. The narrator, an unnamed man in his late 40s, beset by disappointments, returns to his childhood village in Sussex to attend a funeral. There, he finds himself drawn back to search the English countryside, now altered by the sprawl of housing estates.
All that remains at the end of a windy lane is the bucolic Hempstock farm. An older woman he vaguely recalls welcomes him. His memory takes him back to the year when he turned 7 and was befriended by the strange and mysterious 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, who called the duck pond her ocean. I wondered if we had ever fallen in the water. Had I pushed her into the duck pond, 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.
In this place of make-believe, the man tries to sort through his memories. He was a bookish boy, fond of myths, children’s adventure stories and Gilbert and Sullivan songs. His family lived on the edge of financial hardship, and he had no friends. Into this bleak existence arrived the fabulous Lettie, her mother and her grandmother, who gradually reveal that they have been on the farm for at least a millennium. The Hempstocks are wonderfully drawn characters, earthy, homespun and fiercely protective of their new little friend, particularly when trouble arrives.
And what trouble it is. A veil between the worlds is rent, and out pop some of the most vivid monsters in the Neil Gaiman canon, including a seductress who gives this novel its mildly adult flavor, and amorphous creatures bigger than houses and full of menace. The clash of supernatural forces gives the story its nervous energy.
Gaiman is a magpie, a maker of collages, creating something new and original out of the bits and pieces of his wide reading of myth and folklore.
What a weird world he’s made. The metaphysics of the Hempstock farm and the various monsters that threaten Lettie and the boy are neatly juxtaposed against the claims of the adult narrator. He is uncertain as to what really happened and what it all really means, but there is no question about what is at play in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
This is a novel of nostos – that ineffable longing for home, for the sensations and feelings of childhood. I do not miss childhood, the narrator says, 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 found joy in the things that made me happy.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a small thing with much joy and heartache, sacrifice and friendship, beautifully crafted and as lonesome as the ocean.