The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman
‘I just looked up at her, all grown-up and blonde, in her grey and pink dress, and I was scared.’
This is only the second of Gaiman’s novels that I’ve read. The first was Stardust (see review here). I’m really enjoying his writing; it’s so different from anything else.
The protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an adult male, telling of his boyhood. I don’t believe his name is ever mentioned in the book, so I’ll call him Neil [with apologies to the author!] It’s tricky working out exactly how old he is now, but the years have taught him wisdom, and maybe the hard realities of the world. But he’s missing something in his life and wants to recaptures the magic of childhood. Neil’s childhood wasn’t really happy and the question is, I suppose:
Is the magic still there?
‘The girl who was walking towards us, across the field, wore a shiny red raincoat, with a hood, and a pair of black wellington boots that seemed too big for her. She walked out of the darkness, unafraid …. “Get off my land,” said Lettie Hempstock.’
Neil is seven when the police find a dead man in the back seat of his father’s mini, when he meets Lettie Hempstock for the first time, and when his parents hire the pretty Ursula Monkton as a nanny. We know straight off that there is something magical about Lettie and Ursula. For one thing, Lettie, who lives with her mother and grandmother on a farm at the end of the lane, insists that the local pond is an ocean. For another, Ursula isn’t a Mary Poppins; she’s a monster from another dimension, who has found her way to this as a worm inside Neil’s foot. The problem is, only Neil and the Hempstocks know what she is.
Ursula makes Neil’s life hell, shutting him in his room, forbidding him to leave the property and placing [one assumes, magical] artefacts round the garden to prevent him doing so. He eventually escapes and takes refuge under Lettie’s and her family’s protection.
Things don’t go well for Neil. When he fails to obey Lettie’s instructions to the letter, he accidentally open a rift in the universe. This lets in the scavengers, a kind of ravenous, prehistoric bird, reminiscent of Pullman’s harpies in The Amber Spyglass. OK, they eat up the evil Ursula. The problem is, they want to eat up everything and everyone else too – including Neil. And, in order to rid the world of the scavengers, sacrifices will have to be made.
‘I stayed just where I was. I had seen Ursula Monkton torn to shreds, and the shreds devoured by scavengers from outside the universe of things that I understood. If I went out of the circle, I was certain, they would do the same to me.’
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a adult fairy story which explores, at one and the same time, both the magic of childhood and its terrors. Here, it is the conflation of the two that provides the drama and the tension. We all remember the kindly fairy or the good witch who inhabited the stories we were told at bedtime. But, at the same time, we all recall cowering in the darkness of our bedroom as the bedpost, or the wardrobe, or the flapping curtain took on the grotesque forms of monstrous creatures from our fertile imagination. One of Gaiman’s talents is to give us a grown-up novel in which these monstrosities have a life of their own. Moreover, he manages to spin the tale around some of the mysterious quirks of science and the big questions of religion. For the adult reader, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, in some respects, not only fantasy but scary fantasy. I was left wondering whether, as a child, I would have found it less so.
‘ “Hasn’t there always been a moon?”
‘ “Bless you. Not in the slightest. I remember the day the moon came.” ‘