Author: Neil Gaiman
Pages: 181 (hardcover)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a boy.
“Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie – magical, comforting, wise beyond her years – promised to protect him, no matter what.” – from the Goodreads novel blurb.
This was initially going to be my Monthly Book Club Selection for July – until I realized it’s less than two-hundred pages long. It could have still been my selection, of course (after all, it’s not the size of the story that matters, but what the author does with it!), but at the time of my selection, Kindle was charging almost the same price for the novel I did choose as they were for this, and, though I know it wouldn’t matter to me, it didn’t seem fair to ask the other Ladies to conform to my way of thinking and pay for quality over quantity.
In the end, I’m glad I didn’t pick this for July – I know of at least two Ladies who wouldn’t have liked it at all, and the other one would have tried but might not have been able to relate to it.
I’d read the summaries, so I knew The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantasy story for adults with themes that are rather darker than most children are prepared to handle. Of course, you could say that about every book Gaiman has ever written – and I can say this about this novella: it is classic Gaiman. It is equal parts ethereal and enchanting, dark and disturbing…
But it’s short. It’s just so short!
In the end, this is a story about childhood. In particular, it is about that moment when all of the things you think you know (love is enough of a weapon to combat death; without proper vigilance, monsters can – and will – infiltrate your family; doorways exist between worlds; and fairy rings can keep you safe from baddies) collide with all the new facts trying to force themselves into your mind (love is great, but it can’t bring back the dead; adultery doesn’t turn humans into monsters, though it might seem like it; fairy rings are caused by spores and underground fungus).
The Ocean at the End of the Lane brings us to that moment, that eye-opening, world-changing moment that serves as the threshold between childhood and adulthood. We’re there when the world begins to twist, to change, when everything culminates into one glorious, fantastical instant and then begins to fade, to lose its luster when faced with the mundane and looming reality of being a grown-up… But this is where Gaiman asks the important question:
What if the only thing that changed was the child?
Our protagonist returns home for a funeral and stops to visit his childhood home. The remainder of the story is comprised of his memories regarding his brief friendship with the young girl who lived at the end of the lane, who insisted that the pond behind her house was an ocean, and who was more upset about a worm than she was about the dead man found near her family’s property.
The real brilliance here is that what we readily accept about his childhood we are equally ready to acknowledge as fantasy when our protagonist returns to his modern life, his adult frame of mind. The monsters we truly believed were chasing him as a child are shrugged off as the coping mechanisms of an immature mind when faced with the complexities of mortality and adultery.
Unlike our protagonist, however, we are burdened with knowing. He forgets his own fairy tale; we are with him as the memories slip away, we are left to stand by, helpless, as he relinquishes the magic, as his mind cuts off all of those fantastical things that belong in the realm of childhood, all of those things for which there is no room, no time, no place in this world, dominated as it is by grown-ups.
But Gaiman tells us that’s okay. Just because we choose not to see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
The ocean will always be at the end of the lane, even if we’ve forgotten about it… even if we insist that it’s only a pond.