The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel
- Neil Gaiman
- William Morrow
- 192 pp.
- Reviewed by Becky Meloan
- July 8, 2013
A suicide unlocks sinister, otherworldly forces in Neil Gaiman’s first book for adults in eight years.
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Although today’s volumes of fairy tales can be found for sale in colorful bindings filled with child-friendly illustrations, many older narratives have historically been told with adult audiences in mind. Seventeenth-century Parisian salonnières gathered to cleverly retell ancient tales, and under the guise of elaborate fairy-tale language ridiculed upper-class conventions. Aristocratic women not allowed an education, and who had to live by the dictates of men, hosted these salons. Retelling fairy tales as a disguised critique of society was a way for them to rebel against being controlled without alarming the court censors. Fairy-tale heroes were often ordinary folks, frequently young women controlled by the whims of their betters. When these heroines encountered magical trickery, they could only be saved by their own cleverness, along with magical assistance from benevolent wise women. Before the aptly named Grimm Brothers’ revisions, fairy tales often contained extreme violence and sexuality in the form of filicide, rape, suicide and cannibalism.
Hardly tales for children, but grownup themes were exactly what appealed to Neil Gaiman. As a teenager, he discovered William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, a story where a humble farmhand becomes a famous pirate and must overcome torture to rescue his true love from an evil prince who intends to marry and then kill her. Gaiman wrote in The Guardian in 2007 that The Princess Bride was “a fairytale, intended for adult readers. It was a form of fiction I loved and wanted to read more of. I couldn’t find one on the shelves, so I decided to write one.” Though Gaiman was referring to his 1999 novel Stardust, he seems to have revisited his love for the genre with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, his first release for adults in eight years.
According to Gaiman, the genesis for Ocean was his 2003 purchase of a Mini Cooper. His father came to visit, and they reminisced about the 1960 Mini Neil’s father once owned. “Why did you get rid of it?” Neil asked. “Oh, I never told you,” said his father, describing how he once housed a lodger who had gambled away his money, and taken the car to the end of the lane where Neil’s family lived to commit suicide. The story sat in Neil’s head, along with the knowledge that one of the farms on the lane had been listed in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book. Gaiman wondered what it would be like if the people on the farm had survived for that same thousand years. He began writing a short story about the Hempstocks at the end of the lane, but when the word count rose, he decided he was writing a novella, and after the story continued to spill out, he told his publisher, “I appear to have written a novel. I hope you don’t mind.”
Like his delighted publisher, Gaiman’s fans certainly won’t mind.
In time-honored fairy-tale tradition, this one begins with an ordinary hero. A man returns to the site of his childhood home and starts remembering things he hasn’t thought of in decades, like his friend Lettie Hempstock, and the pond in her backyard she claimed was an ocean. As memories return, the story of the man’s childhood comes back to him.
An opal miner, while staying with the family, falls into financial trouble and kills himself in the family’s Mini. Offering distraction from the unsuitable scene of the suicide, Lettie befriends the young narrator. She takes him to her farmhouse kitchen, a friendly place where he meets her mother and grandmother, the timeless Hempstock women straight from English fairy-tale central casting. Filling the role of the benevolent wise women with magical powers, the female Hempstocks are the only ones our hero can turn to when bad things come to pass. Something has been stirred up by the opal miner’s suicide, setting off sinister happenings “like someone lighting a fuse on a firework.”
The two children set off to the Hempstock woods to bind the menacing power. Lettie instructs the boy to hold on to her at all times, but at a critical moment he drops Lettie’s hand. In that instant, something menacing and magical is set loose on the lane. Immediately afterwards, a new nanny named Ursula Monkton arrives at the family house, a governess viler than Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and Snow White’s evil queen combined. She charms everyone she meets except the young narrator. Nobody else can see that everything is terribly wrong. Our fairy-tale hero is powerless against her villainous whims. Enthralled by Ursula, the boy’s father attempts to drown him, but the boy escapes and runs to the Hempstock farm for help. Ursula discovers the boy’s absence and gives chase, dropping her human form.
“I was a seven-year-old boy, and my feet were scratched and bleeding. I had just wet myself. And the thing that floated above me was huge and greedy, and it wanted to take me to the attic, and, when it tired of me, it would make my daddy kill me.
“Lettie Hempstock’s hand in my hand made me braver. But Lettie was just a girl, even if she was a big girl, even if she was eleven, even if she had been eleven for a very long time. Ursula Monkton was an adult. It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win.”
Gaiman’s writing evokes the fear and powerlessness of childhood, but also the power of listening and being understood. His characters make their own choices and suffer the consequences, both good and bad. He has blended the real world with mythology in a way that is marvelous, fanciful and more than a little frightening. A fairy tale for adults, The Ocean at the End of the Lane will hold you in its grip and not let go.
Becky Meloan likes to play with books. In addition to her work as Senior Review Editor for The Independent, she is also a founding member of the Gaithersburg Book Festival Committee, where she recruits authors for appearances. Neil Gaiman has a standing invitation.