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 touch-paper 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’m not someone who grew up with Neil Gaiman. I was only first exposed to, and really made aware of him, by my creative writing club filled with a bunch of pop-culture, story-loving nerds (who I adored dearly). Looking back, however, I realize I had seen Stardust (2007) and Coraline (2009) in high school and loved them, not knowing they were stories derived books from the same author.
Of Gaiman’s books, I had only read his adult fantasy novel Stardust, which I borrowed from my college finally read in 2014 (I reviewed it on Goodreads!) More recently, I had read his middle grade novel The Graveyard Book (which I talked about last year in my Summer Biannual Biblioton Wrap Up).
With my limited experience of the true scope of Gaiman’s works, I entered The Ocean at the End of the Lane assuming that the book would be dark and beautifully written, but (like the previous works I had read) I didn’t expect it to become a favorite or one even one that I found myself thinking about long after reading it. I’m not too sure where I rank this book in relation to the others, but I rated it 4.5 stars.
…Different people remember things differently, and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same, whether they were there or not….
This book is not a new favorite. Nor is it one I could myself reaching for again for the sake of enjoyment. Nevertheless, I had to rate it highly because this book made me feel all kinds of emotions while reading it. Also it kept me wondering, long after I finished it, about the characters how the universe worked.
The experience of reading this book reminded me a lot of the movie Annihilation (2018), which I saw for my birthday this year. It was very beautifully crafted and was a gripping story, but I had no idea what really to think of it at the end. Both that movie and this book left me with a lot of questions, and I feel like the creators of each would argue that that is point.
The problem is I like answers!
I can only describe this book as a beautiful nightmare. When the book opens, there is a middle-aged man who after attending a funeral finds himself drawn back to his childhood home, which no longer exists. As he follows his intuition, he finds himself at the end of the lane from which the book’s title is derived. Little by little, he is remembering tidbits recalled as he arrives at Hempstock Farm.
It’s once he finds himself at the pond, which his childhood friend called an ocean, that he remembers the childhood events that were buried away deep inside.
This novella covers what happens to the 7-year-old narrator after an opal miner who was renting a room in his house is discovered dead in his father’s car. This opal miner has lost the money of his friend and in his guilt apparently killed himself, but not before accidentally summoning some type of evil spirit that decided that it would give people money, but in the strangest and cruelest ways.
I don’t know how much more I should say about this book for fear of spoiling it for any who have no read it. It’s really spooky. There’s some vividly gory imagery that may stay with you longer than you wish (that worm…ick). At times it is painfully sad and, at others, a melancholic dream. The Hempstock Farm is a place I think everyone would like to one day visit.
The Hempstocks, themselves, are what made this book so much more fascinating to me. I don’t remember if they consider themselves witches but they do magic that seems to fit snuggly within recognizable science, come from “the old country” (wherever that is), they are older than they look, and have a very nuanced view of monsters, literal and figurative. They take the narrator under their wing when he needs them most, comforting him and reviving him.
Even though the protagonist is a child, this book is better left for adults. The story will be more meaningful for adults who have more experience with guilt and the unfairness of life. So much of this book is commentary on memory as well, which adults also have far more of. Everyone has memories they wish they could forget, memories that they think might make their lives a little easier if they could just let them go.
There’s no denying memories can be painful, but this book, for me, posed the question of whether or not there are certain memories that person is better left without. Memories not of great mental or physical trauma, but memories that could fundamentally change the way you live your life. Memories that house secrets to the universe….
I’ll leave my review with that question to pique your interest in checking this book out!
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, you get the sense that Gaiman is trying to convey a story without much fuss about the actual prose. The pacing keeps you marching steadily along, reading very colloquially. You feel like you’re inside the head of the narrator, who doesn’t seem to have planned out this story at all but is telling it simultaneously as he recalls it, providing bits of commentary along the way.
I loved how at the beginning of the book we see the narrator subconsciously drawn the the duck pond Lettie Hempstock called an ocean. As he sees things along his path, bits of his lost memories unravel. At the end of the book, we learn that something was drawing him back to the Hempstock Farm, but even if there hadn’t been it felt natural. I don’t think there’s a person who, if they really thought about it, has not moved through life seemingly as if on autopilot without a conscious plan and ended up somewhere interesting.
One thing that particularly stuck out to me in this novel was how it caused me to feel so much emotion (sadness, anger, fear, etc.) even the though the prose was often so subdued and the language used so simple. The first moment that made me cry reading this book happened very early in the story and so unexpectedly.
We learn the boy had a cat given to him on his birthday after no one showed up to his party, and it becomes his best friend. Not a half the page down from where the cat is introduced and we see what a great bond the boy has with it, we learn the kitten was run over by a taxi after just a month. It was a punch I just was not expecting, especially because the book was already off to such a dreary start! I should have known this was the kind of story where things only get worse.
This book reminded me of a few others, including The Graveyard Book, the middle grade book Gaiman wrote that also features a child protagonist, an older girl character, and journeys to netherworlds with orange skies. It also reminded me of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, where Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which who are in this book inhabiting the Hempstocks.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an extremely quick read, so I do recommend it if you haven’t read it already. Just be warned it might be a bit heavy at parts.
Have you read The Ocean at the End of the Lane? If so, what’d you think?!