The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman
Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
I got this book in audio version, narrated by Neil Gaiman himself. It was simply an amazing experience! If you get an audio version, get this one. Seriously, you won’t regret it. 😀
I loved the book and got sucked into the mysterious storyline, shuddering at the scary bits and delighting in the characters. Why 4 stars only? You’re right to wonder at the rating; I’ll explain it shortly. One thing is clear though: if you’re a fan of Gaiman’s writing, you’ll definitely enjoy this modern fairy tale.
Gaiman is a master at writing powerful characters, especially at portraying different aspects of the female psyche. You meet kind, wise, lovely girls and women, but there’s always cruel, negligent and even evil ones to keep the balance on a knife’s edge. I love this potent mixture – it makes for exciting reading and you never really know how events will get resolved. Will darkness prevail or will the benevolent, but often restricted, good powers keep the upper hand? That’s the question driving the story forwards.
At the same time this is also a story about growing up, courage, trust and loyalty, of shattered innocence and betrayal. In a way it is a study of how some adults fail their children, and how other good people can step up and protect the children. It is a story about childhood and all its pittfalls and wonders. Basically a fairy tale, yet one with a modern twist and a bittersweet ending that makes you sigh as you close the book (or in my case set down the mp3 player).
I believe the fantasy aspect of it, this tension, fight between forces, is a mark of an excellent writer. Gaiman keeps you at the edge of your seat, and he enchants you with fantastic imagery and beautiful word choice. He is a master at making the unbelievable appear quite possible, even real. He spellbinds you and that is deserving of 5 stars. Yet… the damned bittersweet ending! It was not what I expected, not closed enough for my taste and this feeling of wistfulness, longing, regret, even guilt, simply makes it impossible for me to feel the book is finished. Yes, it does feel like an appropriate ending to the story but I want more – I want explanations! I want to read more about Lettie and her family.
You know that the boy survives – clearly, as he’s returned back to the pond as a middle-aged man – but you don’t know the extent of his scars. His memories are fuzzy at times, but when they return they are amazingly vivid, the magic tangible and scary enough to make you whimper. The tale whisks you away into the past, resurrects monsters and fears from your childhood you’ve forgotten about, and delivers one great story to read and enjoy.
You’ll not find another book that will impact you on this emotional level again – it’s like a punch in the gut. The mix of beauty and danger, love and hate, the mysterious cat who seems to know everything and shares nothing, the girl and her mother and grandmother and their impossible house. Hidden within are powerful and profound realisations about life and people, And at the end – a pond that is not a pond but a piece of an ocean, the original ocean from whence all life and magic springs from. It is the universe and the stars and the moon, and all that is deep and mysterious and good… I wonder just how little of the imagery, motifs, and themes I’ve managed to squeeze into this review – Gaiman truly outdid himself this time, or I just haven’t read a work of his that tops it. Yes, it’s that kind of a tale.