Would you believe that this is only the second Neil Gaiman book that I’ve ever read? I know, I am disappointed in this reading gap too, as it has happened for no good reason. I enjoy Gaiman’s writing immensely, and his new novel, The Ocean at The End of The Lane did not disappoint.
Existing in that shadowy space between reality and dream, our unnamed narrator visits the Sussex farmland of his childhood neighbors. At seven years old, he spent a surreal series of nights with Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother – a past he hasn’t given much thought to until now. From there, we are submerged in those dark times when a man committed suicide near his home, and his relationship with his family became frightening. Seeming far older than her outwardly young appearance, Lettie promises to take care of the boy, and what happens is a story that I think will require a reread to fully appreciate in detail.
Lettie knocked the thing I was holding out of my hands, and it fell to the ground, where it collapsed into itself. She grabbed my right hand, held it firmly once more. And through all this, she continued to sing.
I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.
It is not that the unfolding events are particularly difficult to understand, but I felt an undercurrent of symbolism that I knew I was missing because of my greedy turning of the pages. Gaiman, of course, writes beautifully, in that full-on heart-swelling way that identifies tricky emotions that one could not previously name. The nightmares of children exist in a language that is often impenetrable to adults, but he writes with such a direct insight to those dreams that we begin to remember what it was like to have them.
I was staring at the sole of my right foot. There was a pink line across the center of the sole, from the ball of the foot almost to the heel, where I had stepped on a broken glass as a toddler. The little hole beside it, in the arch of my foot, was new. It was where the sudden sharp pain had been, although it did not hurt. It was just a hole.
I do not know why I did not ask an adult about it. I do not remember asking adults about anything, except as a last resort.
Perhaps that is why the narrator remains unnamed – it is less about an individual than it is about the emotion of what it is like to be confused, scared, anxious, and brave. Although our narrator is a boy, he is not so firmly gendered that the story excludes the same emotions of little girls. His search for wholeness, for a mothering influence, is something nearly every child desires.
The other Gaiman book I’ve read, The Graveyard Book, dealt with similar themes, though it existed more firmly in the fantasy world. While I liked that story, The Ocean at The End of The Lane feels more effective because we don’t know what is real and what is not. It messes with our suspension of disbelief in a good way, and also in a way that doesn’t scream, Look how clever I am! We’re in the hands of author who knows what he’s doing. Because of this, I am willing to go wherever Neil Gaiman wants to take me, and you better believe that this book of his will not be my last.
Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.