Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.
Warning: There will be vague spoilers in this post. I will put them under a spoiler cut for the blog, but if you are reading this elsewhere (via RSS) then you might want to skip this until you’ve read the book.
This is going to be more of a reaction piece than an actual review, so keep that in mind. I don’t think you actually need my analytic brain to convince you to read Neil Gaiman. At least I hope you don’t.
I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane in just a handful of hours late one night. There’s nothing quite like finishing a book at one in the morning, sitting in the middle-of-the-night silence with your thoughts boiling with new elements. I’ll share with you my initial reaction to the book as I wrote it.
I think, like the ocean, this book is supposed to be just a little bit mysterious, just a tiny bit unknowable. I saw some early reactions. No spoilers, no details even. Just: “this book is for readers”, “this book made me cry”. And reading through the front bits of it, it didn’t seem at all that way to me. It was like all of Gaiman’s work. A little bit surreal, a little bit threatening. Something that speaks on so many levels that you just have to accept that you’ll never quite hear them all, no matter how badly you want to.A bitter little voice inside me started whispering: Maybe you don’t get it. Maybe you are flawed. Maybe you’re not like the rest. And my heart felt a little hollow, because who wants to be that alone?Then, twenty pages from the end, the light refracted off the waters at just the right angle. I sat, stunned, staring off into space with real tears standing in my eyes. Finally, it hit me and I understood. Gaiman reached straight through his story and with words alone plucked my soul like a harp string, setting the very particles of my being ringing with a Truth so profound I don’t think, in these early minutes, that I can quite grasp it yet.Have you ever felt that maybe there was a hole in your chest? A secret wormhole of a tunnel that leads to *somewhere else*? Do you read books to try and fill that hole? To somehow connect the ends and turn it into a pathway you could walk through to something magical? Are you afraid of that path, just a little bit? Do you long for it and fear it equally? Maybe it wasn’t yours to begin with, and you would get rid of it if you could, but you can’t now because it’s a part of you and maybe you wouldn’t really give it up at all if you were given the chance?I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. I just know that this vibrating, humming thing has been set alive inside of me and I don’t know what to do with it yet. It has a magic, that this little story has awakened but that doesn’t belong to the story at all. It is mine. It’s me.My magic. A tuning fork to the Other that lives inside.
Reading this book was surreal. Now the memory is so much like a dream that I can barely remember the details, but what follows are the insights that I have brought out of the experience.
At first, after I had come down from the shaking state of post-book high, I really struggled with the message that I thought I had grasped. Because what struck me so hard was the bit where View Spoiler »the boy still has a piece of the monster in his chest, creating a portal to that other world « Hide Spoiler. And I said to myself, “Wait, that couldn’t be what Gaiman meant, because View Spoiler »having a piece of a monster inside of you is a BAD thing, right? « Hide Spoiler Why would I feel such longing for that?”
Every reader carries that little tunnel to another world inside themselves, and it opens every time we read a book. The tragedy is that we never get to stay there. As soon as the pages close, the tunnel is gone and we can’t ever really keep the connection open. Sometimes that tunnel leads to good things. Sometimes it leads to bad things. But it always leads to awesome things (in the original sense, as in awe-inspiring, whether great or terrible.)
That first character we ever identify with in a book, the one who becomes our friend, is our Lettie. We can really only remember them like we knew them as children when we have the book open. But while we know them, they save us. Whether they save us from abuse or bullying or loneliness or something so mundane as boredom, they save us. That’s what it means to be a reader. Sadly, once those pages close and in the midst of all our adulthood, we don’t even remember them accurately but the best thing is that we can always go back. That’s the best part of books — the best bit of fandom in general, really — we can always revisit those worlds we love and they will always, always be there for us.
I decided not to read any spoiler-y reviews until I had all my thoughts on this sorted out so as not to bias my own opinion before it had completely formed. I did read a few before I came to post this though, and I can tell you that my interpretation isn’t the only one. I don’t even know if I’m correct, but that’s one of the great things about being a reader. We can take whatever we want to out of the story because once we’ve read it, it no longer belongs to just the writer but also to the world. Some people got statements of feminism out of the story. Others got a theme of childhood innocence versus adult longing. The thing is… I think we’re all correct. The Ocean at the End of the Lane incorporates all of these things and I believe there to be many more layers as well. It’s why this book seems to be so loved by so many people.
This book pinged the part of me that has a whole entire other Universe in my recurring dreams. I feel like this book is a reverberation from that subconscious space. I think Neil Gaiman is in my head.