I was in Brighton last week and unexpectedly given a copy of this book by someone who had come across my blog and was amazed that I’d made it to this point in my life without reading any Neil Gaiman. I didn’t have time to explain that this blog only covers the books I’ve read since turning 40, especially as he was correct – there has been a Neil Gaiman shaped hole in my life until now. He comes highly recommended and not just by my friend. Of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Joanne Harris declares “Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. But some books just swallow you up, heart and soul” and the novel won Book of the Year at the National Book Awards in 2013. So what’s all the fuss about?
A fairy take of the dark and dangerous kind, rather than the saccharine reinvention of the genre, Gaiman’s book captures the powerlessness, fear, beauty and trust of childhood. At it’s centre is an unhappy, lonely boy (nobody came to his 7th birthday party), whose name we never learn and who lives in the Sussex countryside next door to the remarkable Hempstock family, consisting of 3 generations of women. Lettie Hempstock, a few years older than him, offers to help out when an opal miner, who was lodging with the boy’s family, ends up dead, his kitten disappears and he has nightmare about a coin getting stuck in his throat that turns out to be real. Lettie explains these odd things are happening because a supernatural being has found its way into the world. But when the pair try to find the spirit and bind it, another force sneaks through the tear between two worlds via a worm hole that lodges itself in the narrator’s foot.
Enter Ursula Monkton, who takes up residence in the boy’s home as the new housekeeper. She seduces his father, deceives his mother and indulges his sister. It’s only our narrator who sees Ursula for the evil, destructive being she really is. Alienated from his family and locked in the attic by a vengeful Ursula, the boy flees to his neighbour’s one night, escaping via a window and down a drain pipe, surely what many a child dreams of doing though few wish for the horrors that require it. The Hempstocks come to the rescue and it involves some powerful magic. They remove the fragment of Ursula’s escape route that’s buried in his foot, confront Ursula and, when she refuses to leave voluntarily, call on “hunger birds” to devour her. These scavengers are ruthlessly efficient and once they’ve seen off Ursula, they turn their attention to the tiny bit of her that lives on in the boy’s heart, and will not return to their world unless they can fully complete their task. The Hempstocks try to keep him safe but the birds are angry at being thwarted and start to destroy the surrounding world instead, devouring trees, sky and, our narrator fears, his own family and everything else besides. Unable to bear the weight of such responsibility, he runs out from the safety of the Hempstock’s farmhouse to offer himself up, but Lettie is on his heels and as the birds swoop in, she tries to protect him. Lettie’s grandmother finally sees the birds off but not before her granddaughter is badly hurt.
Gaiman’s story starts and ends in the present when our narrator is a grown man who occasionally visits his childhood home. When he’s there he recalls what happened to him as a boy, but those memories don’t get carried into his future, and nor does he tend to remember that he’s made previous visits. On each occasion he sees the Hempstock family, who feed him the wonderful meals that nourished him as a child, let him gaze upon the two moons that appear on different sides of their house, and reassure him that Lettie is safe and well, travelling in Australia. They also let him sit by the ocean at the end of the lane, which may only look like a small pond but which contains universe upon universe and whose waters contain knowledge about the nature of everything.
This is a beautifully written book in which the monsters and horrors of magical realism are nothing like as frightening as those the boy encounters in the real world. I was especially struck by how he tackles the idea that damage done to our hearts as children translates into emptiness and loneliness when we reach adulthood; by how big everything is, and how small we are in comparison, doesn’t have to be frightening and can be quite comforting; and by how a childhood where you realise adults are not invincible can feel like the most terrifying place on earth. Mythical, poignant and utterly convincing, Gaiman’s tale did indeed swallow me up.