Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Hardcover: 181 pages
GoodReads rating: 4.01
Personal rating: 4 out of 5 stars
On Wednesday, what I first intended to be me returning a book (The Death Cure by James Dashner) to the library, ended up with me, like the unnamed (I only realised this after googling the book – I hadn’t realised it throughout the book that the narrator was not named) narrator of Gaiman’s novel, unknowingly yet almost deliberately hovering towards the adult section to pick up the only (shameful) Neil Gaiman novel that stood on the lower rungs of the shelf, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
I’ll frankly admit here that this is the first Gaiman novel I’ve picked up. The only exposure I (knowingly) have had before reading this novel was watching the films Stardust and Coraline – and that’s almost like picking second-hand scraps from an author’s writings.
That day, I had time to kill, so I went up to the second floor of the library, where a quiet reading section lay behind walls of glass, as though readers here were extinct animals put up on exhibition, and chose a seat that looked over at the trees and grass that sat behind the library. Honestly, I chose it ’cause the sun was nicely warming that area and I knew I would get cold after a while of reading. I then started, like every other reader does, on the first sentence.
I really did not know what to expect, having both never read Gaiman’s books and having read from the young adult section rather than the adult section for a long time. And I almost felt sheepish at having expected a “grown-up” book. Actually, these lines in the book suited my sentiments while reading it exactly (most likely purposefully so):
“I wondered if that was true: if they were all really children wrapped up in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long adult books, the kind with no pictures or conversations.”
If anything, the novel (expectedly so) had the same stylistics and plot devices as Coraline did – a blur between the lines of imagination and reality, a display of how a child’s world is both real and unreal and how stories traverse the boundaries between the two.
Summarising the plot, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about an unnamed narrator who revisits his childhood neighbourhood. He decides to pay a visit to a particular lane where, at the end of it, is a pond, a pond which a childhood friend named Lettie used to call an “ocean”. There, he recalls memories of himself as a seven-year-old boy, memories he had not previously remembered and a story which I found more fascinating than haunting, though there are undertones of suicide, attempted homicides, and sexual affairs mingled among the magic.
When it came out, the book debuted at number one on The New York Times best seller list and last year was voted Book of the Year in the British National Book Awards. It was also GoodReads’ Choice 2013 Winner.
Personally, I loved this story, otherwise I probably would not be writing a review of it. I usually only write reviews of books that I am inspired by. If I had read it during the time of the 30 Day Book Challenge, I probably would have chosen the unnamed narrator as my most relatable character, who buried himself in books of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, who tried to understand the world around him through the books he read:
“Growing up, I took so many cues from books. They taught me most of what I knew about what people did, about how to behave. They were my teachers and my advisers.”
“I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.”
I really never expected a seven-year-old boy to speak so many truths about how I see the world. But Gaiman captured perfectly in words how I felt about myself as an individual and how I also saw other human beings:
“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
I relate so much to this quote ’cause I’ve understood for a long time that I will always be that nine-year-old self I was – as if that part of me is the smooth pebble stone and, accumulated over the years, is a thick layer of debris – the debris being culturally-imposed ideals and expectations and burdens – but underneath all that debris, I’m still a small smooth pebble.
So, what did I overall think of the novel? Let’s say I loved the first half of it thoroughly. I loved when Lettie took the narrator out into the fields and woods and the entire “worm hole” part. I loved (and hated) the moment when Ursula turned up to take care of the narrator and his sister – it felt like Matilda trapped in the house of Miss Trunchball.
However, I can’t really say that I liked Ursula’s true form, of the fabric with torn eyes, or her hovering in the sky – I felt less terrified than the seven-year-old narrator during those confrontational scenes. Maybe it’s because Gaiman does not give me enough palpable descriptions of her, or my imagination for horror is not as it used to be.
Also, the entire novel creates a lot of suspense and mystery towards what the “varmint”s were – and I kind of found myself less than terrified of them than I was of Ursula. So, because of these reasons I suppose, I preferred the first half of the novel to the second half. The ending however, was quite perfect. It tied the book together in a nice little string bow. It was especially perfect ’cause I turned to the next page, where the acknowledgment section lay, and read this line: “This book is the book you have just read. It’s done. Now we’re in the acknowledgments. This is not really part of the book. You do not have to read it. It’s mostly just names.” Actually, this line made me smile like a goofy idiot in the middle of the library.
At the end of the day, I say definitely give the novel a shot, especially if you’ve watched Coraline and found the narrative of that film captivating. And especially if you need some form of escapism. This book gave me a journey in the four hours I spent reading it. The writing is gorgeous and Gaiman understands a child’s mind so well – how things that cannot be understood are given different forms and names, and how sometimes a parent’s disapproval is more terrifying than the monsters a child creates in his or her own imagination.
Otherwise, if you are not a book person, I’m sure you’ll only have to wait a year or two for it to be made into a film, as it is currently in development in becoming one thanks to Focus Features, which bought the rights to the novel earlier last year. Personally, I can’t wait to see how Ursula and the varmint translate on screen. I personally hope they are more terrifying.
Also, let me know what Gaiman novels you suggest I read next! Or if there are any novels that are similar that are worth reading. For now, I’ve picked up Ann Leckie’s Ancilliary Justice from the library and that is my current novel.
Till next time!