As a child, the world can be filled with wonders and terrors in equal measure. When an adult recalls their childhood there’s a haze over the recollections, a thick mist where only specific memories can be discerned but not with perfect clarity. The memory of a man as a boy serves as a starting point for Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to explore the fears and wonders a child encounters.
Gaiman has used magical realism before to great effect in American Gods. With his latest novel, Gaiman explores the seeming reality of childhood by incorporating magical elements in an otherwise mundane, bucolic world. By setting the novel in a first-person narrative and as a memory, Gaiman is able to use the often-unreliable nature of memory to introduce those fantastical elements. The unnamed narrator returns to the area he grew up in and begins recalling a series of events involving a girl named Lettie Hempstock.
The fantasy elements are accepted by the narrator without question. As children, especially those of us who spent much of our time reading or lost in our imaginations, magic is everywhere and there are other worlds that can be visited. As adults we tend to lose that sense of whimsy or our fantasies take on a much harder edge. The narrator of the novel is not entirely reliable (by his own admission), so it becomes easier for the audience to accept the Hempstock women as supernatural beings. Old Mrs. Hempstock, a stern but caring grandmotherly figure, could be seen as a deity-like character. Lettie exhibits aspects of the fae folk with her precocious demeanor that eventually reveals a strong iron core. Even the narrator develops into a person capable of self-sacrifice in the novel’s waning chapters, evidence that his experiences are part of his coming-of-age. Gaiman ties the novel’s magic into the idea of alternate realities, places where the real world easily transforms into burnt orange skies with dastardly spirits inhabiting them.
Where the novel excels is in the depiction of childhood fear. As a child, one is dependent on their parents for comfort, protection, and sustenance. Adults can often be inscrutable, capricious gods, given to rage and caring in between heartbeats. The most harrowing scene in the novel has only a nudge from the supernatural, relying instead on the possible cruelty beneath the mask of a loving parent. Reading as the narrator’s father fills a bathtub with cold water and then submerging the clearly frightened child beneath the water serves to juxtapose the beauty of the Hempstock’s world with the mundane ugliness of our world. It’s little wonder that children often resort to imagined worlds to escape such banality.
The primary villain of the novel, the decidedly evil Ursula Monkton, is the exact opposite of banal. A spirit made flesh, Ursula toys with the narrator in much the same way a hunter toys with weaker prey. She encapsulates the often casual cruelty adults can be capable of in a child’s eyes; the type of cruelty that quickly informs a child that fairy tales are no truer than any other story. The repeated mantra of this monster is that she’s giving people what they want. The problem with feeding wants (which is a necessary exercise from time to time) is that wants are not good or grounded in realistic thinking. As Gaiman points out during the narrator’s transcendent vision near the end of the novel, the world has only “a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger”. Wants can drive one to do terrible things in order to satisfy that craving.
Gaiman’s works have always been fixated on the dark fantastique interacting with the real world. The fantastique serves as both mirror and creator of the grubs and nightmares, revealing the beauty and horror just beneath our masks. It’s this fantastique that makes it easy to believe a still pond can really be a roaring ocean connected to the whole of reality. It’s also the reason we can accept that characters like Ursula Monkton and the narrator’s father can be both supernatural and natural menaces derived from the same source.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an example of Neil Gaiman using his well-honed storytelling chops. Effortlessly able to switch between the mundane and supernal, Gaiman captures the alluring and the repugnant aspects of the world. Like the narrator, we tend to remember our childhoods (some of us, at least) as quasi-magical times but the memories are all but impossible to hold onto. All that tends to remain in our minds from that tumultuous time period is the subconscious awe and dread as the true nature of the world around us is revealed a bit at a time.