Ho boy. This book was surely the perfect one to read to pull me out of a reading rut. This is my third Neil Gaiman novel, and the first that truly chilled me to the bone. It’s much more serious and much less whimsical than his other stories I’ve read, but no less magical. The Ocean at the End of the Lane sparks some interesting questions about memory, childhood, and how adulthood morphs all of us. I would recommend this book to people of all ages.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins on a somber note: a middle-aged, divorced man returns to his Sussex home to attend a funeral, and in between the service and the luncheon, he finds himself driving to a spot he doesn’t realize until he gets there: an old farmhouse he used to know when he was a very small boy.
He sits by a pond at the edge of the land, and as he does, he remembers repressed memories from when he was seven years old, when an 11-year-old girl named Lettie Hempstock, whose family owned the farm, saved him from a dark, supernatural evil. His memories are triggered by the fact that Lettie called the small pond an “ocean.”
Through the eyes of the narrator, we get to know him as a shy, sensitive seven-year-old who uses books and stories to escape from everyday life. But the whole of the narrative is dominated by the (nameless) main character’s experience dealing with an evil being, who calls herself Ursula Monkton. He first comes into contact with the being when he wakes up choking on a coin, and learns from his enigmatic new friend Lettie Hempstock that a supernatural, devious force is trying to “give people what they want” and is doing it in a way that’ll harm humans.
It isn’t long before the narrator is enfolded in the protective arms of Lettie Hempstock, her mother Ginnie, and her grandmother Old Mrs. Hempstock, who are all something more than human. They and their farm have been around since the beginning of time, and they are aware of the threat that this Ursula Monkton poses. It’s up to young Lettie to protect the narrator and to send the evil being back where she belongs.
The way they try to defeat Ursula is chilling, and it inspires questions of what it means to be human, what it means to be a child, and how children change when they grow into adults. Throughout the narrative is the theme that children know things implicitly that adults cannot understand, and that evil can be manipulative in insidious ways that adults do not even notice. The supernatural Ursula Monkton brings out the worst in humans, and the only person who is unsusceptible to manipulation is the narrator, who is a simple soul with simple desires.
The evil being itself is described as the complicated nature of the human world:
“Ursula Monkton smiled, and the lightnings wreathed and writhed about her. She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty.”
And another quote from The Ocean at the End of the Lane that I loved really rang true, spoken by Lettie Hempstock:
“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
I just absolutely adored that. I think it’s so true that when we hit adulthood, we think we’re supposed to know everything, but I’ve always thought being childlike and playful is the best thing you can be as an adult.
Seriously, read this amazing book. 🙂