Friday, August 16, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman - Review

It’s difficult to find words to describe Neil Gaiman’s recent novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an adult fairytale with semi-autobiographical origins.

It is touching, beautiful, magical and terrifying.

A little boy lives with his mum, dad and little sister in a big old house on a lane. His very own room at the top of the stairs has a little yellow basin that’s just his size. He plays in his garden and reads endlessly in the big tree. At the end of the lane live the Hempstock’s; three generations of women with the youngest, a seemingly 11 year old girl, called Lettie who becomes the little boy’s very best and most trusted friend.

When the family fall on hard times they let the little boy’s room out to lodgers to make some extra money. An Opal Miner comes to stay, steals the family car and commits suicide in it at the end of the lane. His act unleashes something dark and unknown to anyone but the Hempstock women who become the little boy’s only source of protection and comfort.

Now grown up and escaping a funeral, the little boy returns to the Hempstock farm at the end of the lane to remember Lettie Hempstock and the ocean she kept in her backyard.

Ultimately, this story is about truth.

Follow me under the jump for both a non-spoiler and spoiler review of one of my favourite Neil Gaiman books of all time.
This book was written for Neil Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer. If you want to know more about how it began you can read Amanda’s blog post on the book here. In some ways, Palmer sees this novel and her album Theatre is Evil as a companion set, and it's very interesting to view it that way.

Gaiman included a lot of himself in this novel, including the details of his childhood house, the fairy ring in his garden, his favourite childhood novels and the lodger who stole the family car and committed suicide in it. He therefore writes even the fantasy elements of this tale with such a lived quality that the whole book feels like it is exclusively memory. The feelings are palpable and leave the reader struggling to discern fact from fiction.

More than wondering about how much of this book came from Gaiman’s own lived experience, I found myself re-reading paragraph’s and staggering over the emotions from my own life that his stories were evoking. The feeling of comfort in a hot meal prepared by your friend’s mother who takes care of you when you can’t see your own mother. The hurt when no one comes to your birthday party. The sense of betrayal you feel when your parents don’t believe what you say or won’t listen to how you feel. Escaping in books in your own backyard that can become Egypt or another galaxy if you just imagine it. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is composed of the joy and the hurt of childhood and childhood experiences. All of those things that you didn’t know or understand at the time flooding back with adult eyes and yet being remembered with a child’s heart.

The Hempstock women are some of the most warm and magical characters that have ever been evoked in my heart as a reader. I feel like I know them and maybe in some strange way I do. Maybe there were friends or neighbours who would make me a cheese and tomato sandwich when I was sad and tell me things that seemed to fixed a bad situation effortlessly. That’s what Gaiman is playing with here so deftly; the shared elements of experience that so many of us have. Our stories remain the same at their core even though the details may be different.

Lettie Hempstock is every older best friend you ever had, who knew an impossible amount for someone so young and who held your hand and protected you when the bad things came out. She was brave and kind and her family would make sure you were well fed and okay. Lettie Hempstock is the person who you know got you through all of the good times and the bad times growing up and now you just can’t place your finger on where she’s gotten to.

If you are reading now and you haven’t read this wonderful book; please go and read it. You won’t regret it. If you have then please read on as I discuss some of the plot points in the novel with a little more literary analysis.

The Monster: Ursula Monkton

The death of the Opal Miner has released a creature that resembles wet flapping rotten cloth with holes for eyes who shrieks under an orange sky. This monster isn’t as simple as evil itself, after all what would be the point of that? The monster of this story is just a creature that cannot help who she is or what she feels drawn to do. Our hero is simply in her way. Being released into our world through a worm in his foot, she takes human form as his new Nanny: Ursula Monkton. Honestly, Ursula scared the living hell out of me. All of the work that Gaiman did taking me back to my childhood in memory left me completely vulnerable to this character that seems to be turning the little boy’s whole family against him.

His sister loves Ursula and therefore he can’t find solidarity there and his father is having an affair with her, which makes him very upset although he doesn’t really know what it means or why he’s upset. Part of him believes that it’s just because he understands that his parents were a unit on everything and now there was a sense that they weren’t. This sort of element might speak to people whose fathers have cheated on there mothers, or to kids who have been through parental divorce, or simply come to the understanding that their parents aren’t that unit anymore. Gaiman again manages to show us how many experiences are so similar.

Ursula seems to appear out of nowhere all the time, stopping the boy from reaching the safety of Lettie Hempstock who can make all things better and her family. Running through the paddocks in search of safety and comfort the boy is soaked to the core and terrified but these women provide him the comfort, the love and the solutions to his problems that he needs. They are his protection and they are the family that deep down inside, our childhood selves long for.

They eventually find a solution to the Ursula Monkton problem but not without a cost.

The Dad

Ursula Monkton and the Varmits were scary indeed, but for me nothing was quite so scary as the boy’s dad and the experiences he has with him. In the start his memories of his father are soft and warm, burnt toast, being a strong unit with his mother and loving his children. As the story progresses though, we see a different side to the boy’s father and neither the child nor the reader can really tell whether his father is acting this way because of Ursula Monkton’s unearthly power or because he isn’t a very good/able man and really never was.

The part of the story that nearly had me in tears was his father being angry with him, breaking the bathroom door down and then nearly drowning him in the bathtub. I couldn’t shake the realness of the story or the horridness of the violence. Later the Hempstock women mystically chop that part of the story out and ask if the boy wants to remember it, which he decides that he does because it’s part of who he is. His father of course doesn’t remember and neither does his sister. This is all too close to reality; a child explaining something terrible away with magic but remembering deep down while the adult thinks they have forgotten.

Later his father is seen having sex with Ursula Monkton which could again be a product of his father’s will rather than any mystical power on her part; her role is always described as giving people what they want. The sense of betrayal that the little boy feels is real and understandable, and of course relatable.

Finally, when terrified in the backyard, sitting in his fairy ring and waiting for Lettie Hempstock to come and save him, the boy is confronted by his angry father who wants him to come inside to dinner. There is never any tenderness or concern for the child. Nothing to indicate that he actually loves and cares for his son and perhaps no understanding of how to father a small child. Although it could be implied that he is a Varmit because he never enters the fairy circle, I think the truth is that he was the boy’s real father and may as well have been a Varmit because he wouldn’t come into the circle to comfort his child and because he couldn’t exhibit any concern. When the boy starts to cry, the dad just gets angrier and the child tells him “does it make you feel big, making a little boy cry?” Again, it feels so real and so lived that it must have happened and it seems like the first and only time the child (and the future man) ever truly stand up to the cruelties of the father.

I think that the funeral that the man at the end was avoiding was his father’s funeral. His mother is more or less absent from the story he remembers at the Hempstock farm, while the father plays a key role in the memory itself and why the man would return to the farm for comfort.

The Ocean

When I was little I had an ocean in my backyard. It was a tiny backyard, much tinier than Lettie Hempstocks. My ocean was in an old pan that my mother gave me to make mud castles with. When it would rain the pan would fill up and I would watch from the dining room window and imagine that it was like a whole ocean, that I could put things in there like a real ocean and make it real.

Lettie Hempstock believed in her ocean even when no one else would and it saved her in a sense, as surely as the little boy knows it saved him. Gaiman added a fantasy element of the Hempstock’s coming into our world through it and when the boy stepped into it, feeling like he was a part of everything all at once and like he knew absolutely everything. Water did that a lot for me as a child and there is a lot about water in this story, right from the ocean in Lettie Hempstocks pond and it’s healing qualities through to the near drowning of the boy by his father and the cleansing rain that soaked him through as he ran in the dark to the Hempstock farm and his salvation. I am sure people with far more skill than I are going to be analysing that element and its connection to life and death in this novel for years to come.

The End

I was so shocked by the ending of the book I could barely believe that I hadn’t put it together as I went. It’s a testimony to Gaiman’s writing style in this novel that the reader is so drawn in that they never know what is really going to happen.

The boy decides to sacrifice himself to stop the Varmits from consuming the world and in one version that he can barely remember, his heart is ripped from his body and eaten as he screams and dies. In another, more recent, version Lettie Hempstock throws herself onto his body and pins him down to stop the Varmits attacking him. As they rent at her body and she goes limp it takes a very long time for the boy to truly understand that she has scarified herself for him. Her mother Ginny comforts both of them, although her child is dead, and tells the boy that he has to make Lettie’s sacrifice worth it. She also tells him that Lettie is as hurt as she can be but not truly dead and is being returned to her ocean, although he doesn’t believe this to be true.

Taking away the fantasy element, perhaps the story underneath is that the Lettie Hempstock character died for the boy. Maybe she literally died protecting him from something, maybe he just felt like she did, or maybe she simply died and he felt so much like she was his protector that he felt she had died protecting him. All that matters is that she died and it affected him on many levels, including his self-worth, which he struggled with for years to come. He was alive and she was not and part of him felt guilt while the other a sense of responsibility to live for her and do his best.

Although he doesn’t remember it, it is revealed that the narrator comes back to the house at the end of the lane when he faces big life moments and decisions. The Hempstock’s say it’s because Lettie calls him back and in a way maybe she does. The people we love and lose always get revisited when life gets hard.

The narrator is told that he came back when he had two children and didn’t know what to do, another element that could be real from Gaiman’s personal life and we are again left struggling to decide what parts of this story are autobiographical and what parts are fiction, if at all. Because though there might be some fantasy thrown in, sometimes the fantasy only veils the real monsters in our mind, the real events that we want to forget or struggle with and I think there is a lot more truth in this story than fantasy. Truth about Neil Gaiman yes but also truth about all of us; about our lives, our childhood and our experiences. Certainly, there is truth about my own life in this book and that is what makes it such a magical and fascinating read.

A million stars.


  1. I really do want to read this book! i'm a private duty na for an elderly lady and I went to her book club meeting a few days ago. They all shared what books they had gotten for Christmas, and one sweet lady from Germany had this book, which I found delightful. I really hope I'm still reading Gaiman in my 80s!
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  2. Well... If you're a slow reader...

  3. It is a masterpiece, and I'm so glad it was my first Gaiman novel. I'm currently reading American Gods and it is great, too. Different, but great. Ocean is already in my All-Time Favourites list.
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