I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane the day it came out, 18 June. But I’ve put off writing this review because I felt the need to ponder its meaning a little more. Even though it’s less than 200 pages long, the book feels packed with meaning–that must, therefore, be unpacked. I would recommend that, before you read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, you read Amanda Palmer’s “the ocean at the end of the lane (a book & marriage review).” Ms. Palmer, being Gaiman’s wife, has an inside scoop that none of the rest of us have. Because this book is impossible to read without an eye to Gaiman’s biography. I like how Palmer explains it with her blender metaphor. There are personal things here, but they’ve been pureed with so much fiction that you can’t make direct connections between events in the book and the author’s life. No matter how much you want to.
The book opens with the unnamed narrator returning home for a family funeral. The return to his childhood town starts to bring back memories. He goes back to the house he lived in when he was seven, but the house isn’t home anymore now that he’s a middle aged man. He travels further down the road, noting the changes that have been made to the neighborhood since he last saw it. But the end of the lane hasn’t changed much. The house at the end of it, with the duck pond that’s really an ocean, hasn’t changed at all. When he gets to the old farmhouse, Mrs. Hempstock is there to greet him. When he visits the duck pond, his memories of what happened when he was seven and bad things happen.
The way I read the extended flashback was as an extended metaphor for the way that children remember things. They don’t always remember the who, what, when, where, and how. For a boy that’s a big reader, it’s likely that fiction would mix with memory and give rise to the story the unnamed narrator tells. After he witnesses the dead body of a suicidal lodger, he meets Lettie Hempstock who uses a little country magic to fix some of the supernatural annoyances that suddenly sprang up after the lodger killed himself. But something followed him. That something turns into the utterly chilling Ursula Monkton. Ursula turns the narrator’s happy childhood into the nightmare of adulthood therapy sessions. The big confrontation is terrifying and thrilling and weirdly wonderful.
When I finished the book, all I could think of was a verse from First Corinthians. Weird for an atheist, I know, but verse 13:11 popped into my head. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” The problem with the unnamed narrator is that he couldn’t put away those childhood memories. What happened, whether it was supernatural or not, left deep scars on his mind.
So, after writing about my anticipation about this book, am I disappointed? It’s not another American Gods. The trouble with writing something so personal is that, if you’re not part of the inner circle, it’s hard to get very involved. It was interesting, unusual. It was written in the deceptively simple way that Gaiman writes things. I still wonder if there are things about this story that I missed, but I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed. I will say that this is a book that deserves to be read more than once.