Eight years after Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman’s mystical, comic novel about digging up the roots of a mythological family tree, arrives The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Held in place by an adult framing narrative, it winds back through childhood memory to tell an otherworldly story that starts with a death and ends with a sacrifice.
At the end of our young narrator’s lane is the Hempstock farm. Living there are three women, or more properly, two women and a girl. The Hempstock women have had men there sometimes. They come and they go. This mysterious trinity with an ocean behind their house has power and understanding unknowable. They also make a mean shepherd’s pie.
To say The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about childhood is like saying grass is about being green. From every angle, in every light, this book tells you what it is to be a child. Its young protagonist zooms you back to the familiar vulnerability, isolation, and wary suspicion of adults that comes with being seven years old and bookish.
The narrator’s youth isn’t exploited for comic naivety or to make ‘from the mouths of babes’ social comment. He’s no Huck Finn, in other words. A serious, melancholic child who was a “monster” in his infancy and who finds books safer than people, his voice is immediately engaging. The simplicity of Gaiman’s style here (an early example places an event within an ominous timeline: “It was after the bad birthday party. I knew that. So I would have been seven”) slides every so often into more complex mystical diction, reminding us of the adult behind the scenes.
Gaiman’s cultural touchstones – Smash! comics, Blackjack sweets, ITV’s How – may fit a sixties childhood, but so much about the narrator’s perspective and experiences cleaves to the common terrors and rare comforts of being a kid, it becomes almost universal. For a novel about ageless, world-stitching neighbours, alien realms, and spirits both malevolent and pitiable, that’s no small achievement.
At a little over two-hundred pages, it’s amongst Gaiman’s shorter novels, and half the size of his expansive American Gods. The most appropriate comparisons perhaps, are to Patrick Ness’ deeply sad A Monster Calls, or those Ghibli films of Hayao Miyazaki that knit interactions with unexplained worlds and creatures around the perimeters of a childhood home.
It says much that for a story about a young boy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is possibly Gaiman’s least playful work to date. There’s none of Neverwhere’s sardonic Douglas Adams humour, indeed, the only real source of levity is the Hempstock trio’s folksy, idiomatic speech. Old Mrs Hempstock, with her “wigglers”, “fleas”, and “varmints”, has something of the BFG or Ma Larkin about her dialogue, but even that gives way to a much less friendly, more rarefied lexis at a pivotal point, showing that even grandmotherly comfort can turn terrifying at a stroke.
Crucially, like Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, or Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (both tales kicked swirling up from the ocean floor of Western kids’ fiction into the eddy of Gaiman’s story), the novel isn’t sentimental about childhood, but nostalgic. The distinction as I understand it, is that the first involves editing the dark stuff out, and the second involves pain (“I had been driving towards a house that had not existed for decades” is as straightforward a line about the frayed ache of wanting to go home as you could ask for). Despite its cheery Blyton-ish feasts of creamy milk, fresh honeycomb, porridge and jam, and its Laurie Lee-ish talk of teen embraces with red-cheeked, fair-haired farm girls, The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s macabre story doesn’t excise childhood’s darkness or pain.
Is it, like Coraline or The Graveyard Book, suitable for children? It’s not being marketed as such. Reading some of the more nightmarish scenes, and the act of domestic abuse that lodges horribly in the novel’s throat like a silver shilling might (coins are a Gaiman staple and make a reappearance here), it’s easy to see why.
If it’s not just for adults, and not quite for children, there is one age-flexible group it is written for. An obtuse thing to say about a book it may be, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane was written for readers. It’s for people to whom books were and are anaesthesia, companion, and tutor. If you’re one of them, you’ll want to wade into it, past your ankles, knees and shoulders, until it laps over the crown of your head. You’ll want to dive in.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is published by Headline on the 18th of June, priced £16.99. Also available in eBook and audio download.
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