I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.
Oh, how I loved this story. In the same way that the boy who is at the center of the tale steps into a cool pail of water and it becomes the ocean around him, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is a slim volume that takes you in and surrounds you with words and thoughts and characters that are more marvelous than any you thought could be. It is a magical, scary story of death, sleek black kittens, little boys, and demons so anxious to get out of their world and muck up ours they’ll try almost anything.
The boy (who remains nameless) is a bookish boy who
…was not a happy child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than anywhere else.
As a middle-aged man he returns to his family’s home and decides to visit a friend from his childhood. When he gets to her family’s farm her grandmother directs him to the pond at the end of the lane. Once there the present falls away and he steps back into the world of his childhood.
It all began when his parents took in that South African miner who killed himself in their car. In order to get him away from the scene his father agrees he can go to the farmhouse of Lettie Hempstock, an older girl. She lives at the end of the lane with her mother and grandmother and they are women of the kind who nurture and protect—albeit in their own special way. From that day forward Lettie is his defender and when strange things start to happen he goes to her. She explains, in the most matter-of-fact terms, that the miner’s suicide has caused a rent between this world and the next and it needs to be fixed. With her mother and grandmother she comes up with solution to send this force back where it belongs and even allows the boy to come with her when she goes to the place where it lives. She has only one admonition: that the boy never let go of her hand. But, of course, as the horror unfolds in front of him, blustering and threatening, he does. And then things begin to get even worse. Soon, the Hempstocks and their unique, protected land are the only things that will save him and his family.
At times tender and ferocious The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a marvel of creativity. As the story shifts between everyday life and the wild, fearsome other-world one thing remains constant and that is the heart of the little boy. He is so beautifully constructed that, even with the fantasy swirling around him, The Ocean at the End of the Lane remains a story about childhood. This is only possible because Gaiman maintains the perfect balance between the fantasy of the story and the reality of a seven-year-old’s life. Neither takes away from the impact of the other.
The dictionary defines “amaze” as
To overwhelm with surprise or sudden wonder; astonish greatly.
Neil Gaiman has created a book that perfectly fits this definition. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is of this world and the world found in the imagination of a child and both are wonderful and frightening at the same time. Gaiman reels in and casts out the silken threads of the story with a hand so sure, there is no feeling of being hooked or duped. Instead, you chafe to find out what happens even if means finishing and re-emerging into reality. At less than 200 pages it doesn’t seem possible that one could escape so completely but I did and you will. Prepare to feel amazed.
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