I chose this book for April’s Book Club at the library, and it inspired a lot of discussion. But even so, I’m not sure I know where to start. I finished this book slightly agape, wondering what I had just read.
It’s a small book at less than 200 pages, but that doesn’t take away from its fullness.
The book opens with a middle-aged man who is in town for a funeral. Soon he finds himself revisiting the place where he used to live with his parents and sister when he was seven. He visits his old house before wandering down to the farm at the end of the lane, a place that starts to bring back a strange sequence of memories. Memories involving monsters of all kinds and magic of a different sort. Are the villains we remember monsters from another world, or is that just how children make sense of the people who brought upheaval into their lives?
Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.
Because the story is told from the perspective of a seven-year-old boy, you’re left wondering what’s real and what’s imagined. More importantly Gaiman seems to ask, how real are the magic and monsters of our childhood? Are we the wise adults or are we the ignorant ones, blinded by years of sensibility and rationality?
I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look 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. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at once mysterious, utterly creative, extraordinary and wise. Yet, it is also disorientating and bewildering. It is dream-like in quality – I felt as though I was lost in a wildly imaginative nightmare!
There are too many passages worth quoting and the imagery created is wonderful. But, I was left wanting so much more from this book. More context. Who are the Hempstocks? Or more accurately, what are the Hempstocks? Where do they come from? But, perhaps that’s the point, we’re not meant to know but to imagine.
Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.
Wit and and strange leaps of imagination make up The Ocean at the End of the Lane and so it is a book that is both hauntingly nostalgic and mystical, as only a work by Neil Gaiman can be. Ultimately, the heart of this book is memory in all its unreliable glory.
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.
Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.
A solid 4 out of 5.