End Date: January 26th
Author: Neil Gaiman
Pages: 181 (hardcover)
Selected By: Lady Esbe
“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.”
It is unfortunate that this is not my favorite Neil Gaiman book. It was well done, but overall, I felt disconnected from it and slightly disinterested. Ok, in all fairness, I’ve been a bit under the weather and maybe that colored my view of the book. I’ve tried reading it a second time and get about five pages before I feel tired.
Something that was also striking is that the narrator is not named. He’s central to the novel, and we are seeing this unfold through his eyes, but to go unnamed is also to make him somewhat powerless to me. When the entity is confronted by Lettie Hempstock, she demands that it names itself. There is power in a name. Those who have true power in this novel are named. This is mainly the Hempstock women and the power is in their surname, not their first. Yes, we know there is Lettie, Ginnie and Old Mrs. Hempstock, who are amenable and powerful women. Again, they are named and those names give them power of self-identity and a sense of self to wield their power. It is not to say that all named characters are powerful. Some are merely, landmarks along the way, such as Callie Anders.
There are others who seem to exert power but are not truly powerful. If we think of old Norse, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, etc. gods, we often find that these gods lose power as they lose their worshipers. Loss of worshipers also means loss of memory of what those gods stood for and meant to those civilizations. The same is seen here in the entity that invades our narrator’s world. The disconnect from the world, is much like a manager who has no clue what is going on with their employees, making assumptions rather than asking what is needed. The South African opened up the gate from the ancient world to the modern with his suicide on a wish that he would be able to return the funds his misappropriated from his friends and colleagues back home.
This leads to our first major theme, being that money is usually the beginning of many problems. The narrator’s family appears to be lower middle class, with a nice home in Sussex, but I would suppose with the downturn of the economy, things have become tight. Thus, the letting out of the narrator’s former room to borders, including The South African who seems to spark all the problems the narrator begins to have. The windfall of money from here and there seems logical at times and sometimes clearly hazardous (i.e. the coin showing up in the narrator’s throat in the middle of the night). However, this sudden abundance does not mean comfort for many of the characters, and in fact seems to cause even more problems for our narrator. With his mother taking on work in town, he must endure a new nanny who has rather sinister motives for arriving at his door.
I do not say that money is the root of all evil here because, while the entity is sinister in her human incarnation. The desire to regain power wasn’t necessarily malicious. She is long forgotten and holds no true sway over this world. The need to feel needed brings about the power, even though it is but a fraction of what was felt when she was worshipped some time ago. While she tortured the narrator, it was more out of desperation to remain in this world than in the nothingness she has been trapped in for a millennia. To be worshipped by a few was better than to be worshipped by none. She had that in the narrator’s sister and father to be sure. However, that doesn’t amount to a civilization’s worth of worship that would have made her more formidable than what she is at this turn of events. Unfortunately for her, the thought of dispersing wealth was not enough to get the worship of many, as she is unnamed and cannot be worshipped.
The second major being also that even the smallest speck of darkness in someone can cause evil to grab a firm foothold that is hard to shake. I know I said I wouldn’t describe the entity as evil, but that desperation can appear to be evil. She latched on so tightly to the narrator, that there was still a hole within him where he attempted to cut her out. This hole was a safe haven for the entity and the belief it could take shelter there when in danger. Could that be said of all fears, anger, hate, etc.? That once any of these emotions take a tiny foothold, it is often hard to break free. I think this novel clearly illustrates that. Unfortunately, it would appear that at least one deep sacrifice is required to overcome the issue.
I apologize for the brevity – I honestly thought this was well-written, but just not my cup of tea.
Lady Esbe’s Favorite Character(s): The Hempstock women.
Lady Esbe read the William Morrow hardcover edition of this selection.
I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children stories. They were better than that. They just were. Adult stories never made sense, and they were slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?
Well, this is one of the few times that I’ve gone back to read a novel I read years ago, and my opinion and impression of it remains unchanged. I originally read The Ocean at the End of the Lane in 2014 and almost picked it as my own selection that summer, but it was, at the time, the same price for a digital copy as it was to download a full-length novel, and I could not, in good conscience, ask the other Ladies to plunk down hard-earned coin on a story I was pretty sure half of them (at the time) would have considered too fantastical and childish.
“Grown-ups don’t looks 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. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
And that’s pretty much the entire backbone of the story – a modern myth of fantasy and childhood. Or a myth about the fantasies of childhood. Or, better yet, a myth about the fantasy that is childhood, which might not actually be a fantasy at all but simply a matter of perception. Adulthood in Ocean is not so much a state of being, a necessary step in the natural progression of a fairly delicate mortal species from birth to death, as it is the result of a choice we never even knew we had to make until it’s too late, and once made we can never look back and say precisely when or how or why we made it; at some point in the past, after Santa but before we had to start filing our own taxes, we simply let our mermaids sink into the depths of the sea and our intergalactic space stations, once the homes of countless alien species, crumble to nothing in the ink-black infinite. After that, no matter how long we stand at the water’s edge or stare at the stars, we never truly see them again, and never with the same conviction, the same eyes, as we did before we started all of this adulting: a memory might flicker to life now and again, when sunlight passes across a distant whale’s flukes or the blinking of strobe lights on the wingtips of an airplane passing overhead at night catch our eye, but they invoke little more than perhaps a whimsical smile or a shake of the head.
That’s the trouble with living things. Don’t last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together.
That being said, I’ll save myself the trouble of having to rewrite what I’ve already done once and save you the bother of leaving this page with all our thoughts on this selection to go to a version of my opinion alone and instead post the pertinent parts of my original review below. I’m really glad Esbe picked The Ocean at the End of the Lane for January – for one thing, she liked it better than I thought she would have almost five years ago, a change for which I credit our wee book club since, prior to GBC, I don’t think I would have expected her to ever pick a fantasy of her own free will, and for another I really enjoy getting other perspectives on books I have strong impressions of myself. For example, through both readings I got so stuck on the sad truth that we can’t see the oceans in ponds anymore that I never made Esbe’s American Gods-style connection – that the oceans might have been there and the beings who lived nearby may have been immortal and magical and powerful… but in the end, they were all always dependent upon our own fleeting, fragile belief.
Which, when you think about it, is a kind of magic, in and of itself.
“How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow.”
Originally posted in Interim Reviews, July 2014:
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.
I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.
Elle Tea’s Favorite Character(s): Lettie, Mrs. Hempstock, and Old Mrs. Hempstock.
Elle Tea read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.
As we age, we become our parents; live long enough, and we see faces repeat in time.
This was a really good book even though it was sad. I really liked the imagery but I always do with Neil Gaiman. And of course I will read more by this author.
Books were safer than other people anyway.
I really did not like the little boy in this book. I keep having to remind myself that the things I did not like about him were because he was seven and really how much do you think a seven year old will listen especially in a scary situation? Because of him something bad happens and because of him someone gets hurt. One of those times he was trying to be helpful but it did not work out. Later one would ask, “Was it worth it?”, and the answer ladies and gents is: no. Okay I was the one that said no and I’m not in the book so my opinion doesn’t matter.
Proper bread was white, and pre-sliced, and tasted almost like nothing: that was the point.
I just found our narrator to be a terrible disappointment. Not just as a little boy but as an adult too. My review sounds like I hate him, but he had some redeeming qualities. Now not enough not to make him be not a wanker but some things I could relate with him. He loved to read and go to other places through his books. He made friends slowly. There’s a part where he talks about going to a place called the Chamber of Horrors thinking it was one thing and instead was another. It was a place that depicted acts of murder through dioramas. I thought it was funny that he learns that most people were murdered so that the killer could sell their bodies to anatomy. At this point you may be thinking that does not sound particularly funny, but it was the way that it hit him. Because once he saw this he decided that anatomy is what made people kill their children. It’s funny to view the world from a child’s perspective. You never really know exactly how they will interpret things but when you find out it’s interesting to see their view or it’s extremely hilarious.
I did not know what anatomy was. I knew only that anatomy made people kill their children.
You would think that my least favorite character would either be the little boy that I just said I didn’t really like or maybe Ursula Monkton who is a bad guy in our story, but no I would say that my least favorite character was the boy’s father. He was a terrible excuse for a parent who obviously did not have enough will power to keep himself of a good frame of mind. He was easily persuaded and weak. I wanted to kick him in the shin and then jab my knee into his stomach. I don’t care if he ate the exceptionally burnt toast so his children didn’t have to and so that it didn’t go to waste. There’s something that happens and he sucks – and yes, “sucks” is the best word that I can come up with, because he doesn’t warrant the energy or brain power of finding a better one. And if you’ve read this and you actually liked the father, just know that he was so awful that now I’m judging you.
Small children believe themselves to be gods, or some of them do, and they can only be satisfied when the rest of the world goes along with their way of seeing things.
I liked the magic that was in the story and the power of the ocean. I wish I could be a Hempstock, to know things about the world and help drive away evil. It would be one hell of life.
I could not understand why grown-ups would take things that tasted so good when they were freshly-picked and raw, and put them in tin cans, and make them revolting.
I can’t believe stories like this exist in one person’s head. They can place pen to paper and share these stories with so many people. I really like Neil Gaiman and can’t wait to read another one of his books.
Adults should not weep, I know. They did not have mothers who would comfort them.
Additional quotes I liked:
I wished I could have seen who was talking. If you have something specific and visible to fear, rather than something that could be anything, it is easier.
“Nothing’s ever the same… Be it a second later or a hundred years. It’s always churning and roiling. And people change as much as oceans.”
“You only need men if you want to breed more men.”
“You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.”
BillMo’s Favorite Character(s): My favorites from this book are the Hempstocks, I loved them! They were so strange and so different. I picture them dressing like Mrs. Weasley from Harry Potter. The middle Hempstock (Mrs. Hempstock) would be my least favorite, but I really like Lettie and Old Mother Hempstock. One could make the moon full and place it where she wanted and the other was wise beyond her years. I have a picture of Lettie as a tomboy country girl that was just genuinely nice and saw things for what they were.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.