“I put the other foot into the water and I went down with it, down like a marble statue, and the waves of Lettie Hempstock’s ocean closed over my head.”
Like the unnamed narrator of Neil Gaiman’s newest novel, the experience I felt while reading the book was one of being enveloped in the world and memories that were created–the ocean closing around me as the story tumbled forward. It would be a shame to read this book as just a simple tale. What Gaiman is getting at is how we remember things; how are memories change from childhood to adulthood; how the sizes and details of our past are malleable. The most obvious is the “ocean” which we soon find out is a duck pond by the Hempstock farm located at the end of the lane from the narrator’s childhood home.
Strange events lead to unworldly ones that are the core of Gaiman’s other works. There are creepy crawlies making their uncanny home in our world but at first appearing as us which is always the most frightening. Within his own house, only the seven year old narrator feels something amiss. “Because she’s not human,” I said. “She’s a monster. She’s a…” Gaiman gives names to these creatures, but it is not their names that are important; they serve as a nightmare for the seven year old protagonist to try to remember forty years later.
As I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I kept thinking about a favorite author of mine as a child–Roald Dahl. His protagonists were kids and they were up against miserable adults out to make their lives a living hell or transform them in some way (I’m thinking mostly of The Witches and Matilda). But what was different about the protagonist of Gaiman’s book (which isn’t necessarily a book for children) is that he appears almost helpless. It is because of his reliance on the Hempstock women that the narrator’s remembrance of childhood events or nightmares is so easily misremembered, re-remembered, and remembered.
This book is a bit different than Gaiman’s previous (or at least the ones I have read) but it still retains the creativity and vividness that he is known for. What starts as a story of a man returning to his childhood home and to the neighbors that he only slightly remembers becomes an engaging tale that is weaved and reweaved to keep the readers on their toes.
The narrator makes an apt statement about myth,
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”
In these short lines, Gaiman has described exactly what this book is. The memories that are stitched clearly at times and foggy at others are done with uniqueness and beg to be read thoughtfully. I am curious to see a child read this book now and in four decades, like the narrator himself, try to recall what he had read. How would he tell this story?