The Ocean at the End of the Lane

ocean at the end of the laneA very common theme for science fiction and fantasy stories is that things are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. This shows up everywhere from the Pevensies’ wardrobe to the Tardis, and it is, of course, because it speaks truth: human beings are also bigger inside than they are outside. All our consciousness and imagination, all our love and fear and relationship and art, comes from inside. So when Neil Gaiman’s unnamed middle-aged narrator tells us the story of his awful seventh year, when he met unspeakable danger in the shape of his family’s nanny, and found help he couldn’t have imagined in the form of an eleven-year-old girl, and saw an ocean the size of a duckpond — bigger inside than outside, all of this — we are at once on ground utterly strange and comfortingly familiar.

The supernatural events in the story are kicked off by the suicide of the lodger at the narrator’s house. The death wakes a being who at first wants to “help” people by giving them money (since she has quickly detected that money makes people happy in this world — right?), but this soon devolves into harm and madness. This theme of money is something I haven’t often seen in modern fantasy. It is, of course, an extremely common theme in fairy tales: pots of gold, silver and copper guarded by dogs with spinning eyes; a broken branch of diamond with silver leaves; a dwarf who can spin straw into gold; jewels and coins coming out of a girl’s mouth. Why don’t our modern fantasies dwell on it more, given our culture? Gaiman does it perfectly, as you might expect.

The enemy quickly escalates her attack on the narrator, and Gaiman lets the reader really understand the total vulnerability of a seven-year-old: you can’t get away, you have no power, no money, and no credibility. When even your parents are against you — and his are turned against him — there is no safe place left. But Gaiman gives the narrator a haven and some unexpected help in the form of the Hempstocks, three women (or are there in fact three of them?) who run the farm at the end of the lane. These women have been on this piece of property for a long time — we are allowed to consider the possibility that they have been there forever — and their duckpond is in fact an ocean. There is strength here, and a willingness to sacrifice.

I should mention here that one of the loveliest things Gaiman does in this book in order to delineate the discomfort and fear of home from the safe space of the Hempstocks’ is to talk about food. At home, he gets burned toast, when he isn’t being sent to his room without supper. At the Hempstocks’:

“We have breakfast here early,” she said. “Milking starts at first light. But there’s porridge in the saucepan, and jam to put in it.”

She gave me a china bowl filled with porridge from the stovetop, with a lump of homemade blackberry jam, my favorite, in the middle of the porridge, then she poured cream on it. I swished it around with my spoon before I ate it, swirling it into a purple mess, and was as happy as I have ever been about anything. It tasted perfect.

Gaiman is thinking a lot about what makes us into ourselves in this book. Is it memory? Is it being willing to do something for another person? Is it integrity? When the narrator’s father, seduced by the villain, loses his memory of his family and betrays his son with abuse, he has lost himself completely. Yet the narrator also loses his memory, and that’s what helps him heal as he gets older: Old Mrs. Hempstock declares that he’s growing a new heart. (This reminded me of Kay in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” The narrator, too, has had a fatal sliver of ice in his heart, and has needed a woman’s sacrifice to melt it.)

This is a wonderful book. I’ll admit that I had a strong reaction to it: children in trouble bring that out in me, and Gaiman doesn’t spare us. But he lets us see the strong places, too, and the love, and the comfort, whenever there is any, and the eventual possibility of healing. I’d say this book — like all true art — is bigger on the inside than on the outside.

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10 Responses to The Ocean at the End of the Lane

  1. Melinda says:

    Another good review :) Sounds good!

    • Jenny says:

      Some people run hot and cold on Gaiman, but I really tend to love him. This one I adored, and found very intense — frightening and moving and uplifting and sad and happy, all at the same time sometimes. It was wonderful.

  2. Samantha says:

    Seems like you enjoyed this one a bit more than me – I loved all of the references to mythological tropes, but had some difficulty with voice and pacing, and the relative lack of character development and subtlety. ( Although now that I think about it, I don’t read many novellas, and I wonder how many of these complaints may have to do more with the genre than with Gaiman’s writing. I’m glad you read this; it’s really nice to hear another perspective! Have you read many of his others?

    • Jenny says:

      I have read most of his, with the exception of Good Omens, which for some odd reason just doesn’t appeal to me. I have at least liked and mostly loved all of them except Anansi Boys, which I was so neutral on that I can never remember what it was about! :) I loved Coraline and Fragile Things. I was the only person I know who loved American Gods. I liked Neverwhere and Stardust and loved Sandman and Mr. Punch. My general opinion on Gaiman is that he is one of those blessed individuals who has great ideas to spare, great ideas falling out of his pockets, and can also execute them brilliantly, and also is nice, so he works with brilliant people and doesn’t piss other people off. It’s rare in the business. I’ll essentially read anything he writes.

      That said, I know a lot of people who run hot and cold with him (including Teresa.) He’s no John Crowley, and I can recognize that. I think his premises are sometimes better than his execution.

  3. Your review reminds me of Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK (which I loved). How would you compare it to that?

    • Jenny says:

      Great question! The Graveyard Book was intended for children, and this is an adult novel. That allows Gaiman, for one thing, to be significantly scarier. I literally wept over this book, over the vulnerability of children everywhere, and I didn’t over Bod or even Coraline. I also think Gaiman is exploring more grownup themes here, of sacrifice and money and sex and death and knowledge and inside and outside and love and story and art. Bod is doing some of that, but it’s from a child’s perspective. This is much more complex and subtle and grown-up (though children’s stories, if they’re good, approach all those themes.) Hope that helps distinguish it! I loved The Graveyard Book, too!

  4. Jenny says:

    Oh man. I keep running into reviews of this book. I’m going to have to pony up and find a copy, aren’t I? I’m always drawn to books about the vulnerability of children and I’ve read so many good things about Gaiman has done with this book.

    • Jenny says:

      This is going to sound weird, but I’m so glad you came by, because I visited your blog for the first time and it is absolutely wonderful. So thoughtful about so many books (and other things) I love. And I think you are spot on about the vulnerability of children and the way good novels (whether they are children’s novels or not) can be tools for understanding and dealing with that in fierce, angry ways. Gaiman has done that from one perspective in Coraline (and The Graveyard Book, too) but this is an adult novel and he does it differently here. From your blog, I think you’ll find it really, really interesting.

      • Jenny says:

        Thank you! I need to pick up Coraline, too. I’m a bit behind on some of Gaiman’s more recent stuff, but I did read The Graveyard Book and liked it quite a lot. I’m curious to see how how he treats the same sort of theme in both an adult’s book and his children’s books. The way he handles children and children’s issues in his novels always remind me so much of Diana Wynne Jones.

  5. Pingback: Mini-reviews: Smile, A Woman Entangled, and Ocean at the End of the Lane | A Good Stopping Point

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