Feel disconnected from your childhood lately? Although I am not a licensed psychiatrist, or a doctor of any sort, let me recommend to you The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.
Never fear: it is not a pill that is bitter to the taste, although it is certainly not sugar coated. Inviting and familiar, it runs down smooth, putting you right to sleep and bringing you straight into the dream-realm, where you re-experience horrors you may have forgotten from your childhood—or perhaps some you still remember.
“I remember my own childhood vividly … I knew terrible things. But I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Such words were spoken by Maurice Sendak in Gaiman’s epigraph to his short novel. The line of dialogue might have been spoken by the protagonist of Ocean.
Like a frequent number of Gaiman’s novels (including American Gods and Anansi Boys), Ocean opens with a funeral. The name of the deceased and the name of the middle-aged narrator are never mentioned. However, from the very first line, we are aware the protagonist has unresolved childhood issues, as he seeks out the old (very old) Hempstock Farm, near the duck pond at the end of the lane near his now-demolished childhood home.
Lettie Hempstock, who was his only friend from when he was seven years old, has moved to Australia. But there is far more to her than meets the eye. She called the duck pond at the end of the lane an ocean, and though she appeared to be twelve years old, she had an ageless look in her eyes and a familiarity with the supernatural world well beyond her years.
Trouble begins when an opal miner from South Africa commits suicide in a stolen car at the end of the lane. The event triggers a series of mysterious happenings. It is not long before the middle-aged man’s seven-year-old self is drawn into the very thick of it. Adventures involving monstrous nannies, thunderstorms, hunger birds, and fairy rings ensue. Lettie is the boy’s only hope of returning to the normal world and he must hold onto her hand for dear life, when faced with terrors that threaten to undo everything he treasures.
In the midst of these horrors, Gaiman writes with poetry and humour. The chapters of The Ocean at the End of the Lane read like highly sensory, nostalgic vignettes, where one indulges in the feeling and breathing in of childhood memories. He does this without becoming a William Wordsworth, leaving Tintern Abbey for the Gothic ruins of another, more dangerous supernatural world.
Gaiman’s casual mentioning of the impossible creates humour, such as when Old Mrs. Hempstock investigates the age of a coin by looking at it hard enough to see electron decay. That particular moment also made the Rialto Theatre in Montreal burst our laughing, when Gaiman was in town for his book tour—an event I was lucky enough to attend.
Fusing the realistic present-day to the fantastic and the cosmologically ancient has to be Gaiman’s signature way to set up a story. It makes for a combination that causes us to look in our own world for traces of the fantastic. The Ocean at the End of the Lane reminds us of this supernatural presence in our world and invites us to look back upon the dark corners and in-between spaces of our childhood, where we did not always follow the paved, repeatedly-traveled roads that adults follow out of routine.
Many readers who pick up this book will be inspired to run across fields and forests and leap over fences, or, if they prefer, only take the road less traveled. An excellent cure for the ennui of adulthood, Ocean makes for an ideal end-of-summer read.