Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

I’d only just bought this book before settling down the next day, and finishing it in one shot.

How do I even begin to describe Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane? It’s a story of a man reminiscing about his childhood on a worn old bench, in front of a pond that is an ocean. It is also the story of that same man, as a child, finding himself caught in a web of strangeness, terror, and his involvement with the three mysterious Hempstock women.

It is also a story of childhood, adulthood, everything else in-between, and everything else beyond that.

Through an unnamed narrator, we witness his journey back into his own past. As an adult, he drives away from a taxing funeral to revisit the place of his childhood – the house at the end of the lane, and of course, Lettie Hempstock’s ocean. There, the narrative is taken over by the telling of the narrator’s childhood, beginning with the death of an opal miner in the back of his family’s Mini, followed by his meeting with the Hempstocks and a darkness that seizes the town in the form of one Ursula Monkton, a creature who is not as she appears to be.

Combining voices both adult and child, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is filled equally with the wonders and horrors of childhood woven together with short, simple prose. Descriptions of the bright and beautiful are vivid – from the smell of food in the air, the wonderful fragrance and colors of the flowers, to the gold of the fields. The narrator’s fears and the mythos of the book’s universe are brought to life in a way that is slow, subtle, and almost matter-of-fact. Fitting for a book with so many themes and memories, concealed within just as many layers.

The narrative brings us through the frustrations and tribulations of a rather horrifying childhood (All Adults Are Useless is a trope utilized to the utmost), through the eyes of a narrator who has since grown up and away from all that. The switch between the memory (a land of helplessness mixed with excitement and action) to the more sombre reality of the narrator’s adulthood is clear – how the atmosphere changes so easily to something quieter and more nostalgic as he exits the past, done with his reminiscence.

As the narrator moves on with his own life, the reader is left looking back. What have we just read? What have we taken away from this man’s story?

Just as Old Mrs. Hempstock mentions – no two people remember a moment the same. Just like how memory works (in that unpredictable and incredibly biased way) I believe that every reader can take away something different and personal from this book, which is exactly what makes it so big.

To me it spoke about memory, about how your experiences never quite leave you though they may be forgotten, and how reliving a memory can be such a unique, individual experience that you seem to bring back something new and delicate away from it every time. Revisiting the past can, in a way, teach you more about your present or future.

It was also a thoughtful look on how people grow up – the borders between childhood and adulthood, and how the world then and now can change so rapidly, can be so different when looked at through different eyes. We’ve grown up and our childhoods may be reduced to memories, but then memories never truly abandon us. Our childhoods are perhaps just waiting to be discovered again and relived. The child in us is not a dead thing.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a small, thin book that fits easily into my hand. Like Lettie’s ocean, it is a thing of knowledge whose depths cannot be truly captured; its appearance does not reflect its vastness.

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