The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the third Neil Gaiman book I’ve read. I’ve heard people whose taste in books I admire rave about him; I’ve enjoyed articles he’s written that I’ve read online; I adored his nerd-rockstar surprise appearance in last year’s Evening of Awesome. But as for his actual books — well, the first Gaiman I picked up, on a friend’s recommendation, was American Gods, and I could not get into it. Just didn’t like it much at all. Then I read Stardust after seeing the movie, and thought it was a great little fairy tale, although it’s one of the very rare cases when I have to say I liked the movie better than the book. Probably just because the book doesn’t have Robert de Niro as a cross-dressing sky pirate, though.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is also best described, perhaps, as a fairy tale, though one rooted in the everyday world. A middle-aged man goes back to his childhood home in Sussex for a family funeral (we don’t find out whose, exactly; presumably one of his parents). Unable to face the after-service get-together at his sister’s house, he drives back to his old home — not to the house he lived in as a child, which is no longer standing, but to the house at the end of the lane, where a girl called Lettie Hempstead used to live with her mother and grandmother, in a farmhouse behind which was a small pond that Lettie claimed was an ocean.
That’s about all the narrator remembers when he sets foot on the property — except for a vague memory that Lettie moved away somewhere, possibly Australia. But as he sits and looks out at the “ocean,” memory rises up and he is again seven years old. The sudden and violent death of a stranger who briefly boarded in his family’s house plunges the boy into an unexpected and unearthly series of events, in which the only people he can trust are the three Hempstead women, who are very obviously the archetypal Maiden, Mother and Crone who guide the boy through a terrifying encounter with an evil alien power. This is a novel in which the childhood loss of innocence is played out on a mythic scale. At the end of the story we are reminded that the main character is no longer a child but a man who has lived forty years of his life — marriage, parenthood, divorce, career, loss — since the events of his childhood fairy-tale unfolded. His story ended, as all true stories do, not with a happily-ever-after but with what we all get: one ordinary human life. What he wants to know is — has it been worthwhile? Has the life he’s lived been worthy of the long-ago sacrifices that were required to save that life?
It’s everyone’s question, really, which may be why the narrator is unnamed. Whether or not you believe a divine being has literally sacrificed him or herself for you — as most Christians believe, and as, in a somewhat more pagan way, Gaiman’s Everyman believes — we all launch out into our lives with a burdensome weight of hope, dreams, expectation and sacrifice behind us. We may be aware of it; we may not. For much of his life, the main character here is unaware, because he forgets, over and over, what happened when he was seven years old. But when he remembers, he needs to know if his life has been worth saving. And that, of course, is the question no-one can answer for him.
Sorry, I got a bit philosophical there at the end, but this is a novel that, while on one level a short and childish fantasy, is deeply thought-provoking. It provoked me to think as well as propelling me forward through an engaging and creepy story, and I think it will linger with me for awhile.