By the time I finished The Ocean At the End of the Lane, I wanted a cheese sandwich. Nothing exotic. Just a proper cheese sandwich: “Freshly-baked bread, sharp, salty cheese, the kind of tomatoes that actually taste like something.” A little into the book, Neil Gaiman describes freshly-milked milk as “rich and warm and perfectly happy in my mouth.” I found my mouth watering. Such is the power of Gaiman’s description. It’s impressive because I tasted freshly-milked milk when I was the same age as the little boy in The Ocean… . It was disgusting; it stank, I hated the slithery, slippery creaminess and it was very easy to imagine the cup of milk teeming with wiggling bacteria that were doing a little Mexican wave because they’d avoided death by pasteurisation. Basically, to my tongue, fresh milk was so yucky that I essentially willed myself into becoming lactose intolerant. And yet, there I was, drooling because of a description of something I don’t like.
Very little of the food that Gaiman writes about in The Ocean… is from my childhood. And yet, reading the novel made me feel hungry. Almost every time the little boy goes through something traumatic, the signal that the bad stuff is over for now is that a meal is placed before him that he wolfs down. Gaiman’s words are a physical description of the food – shepherd’s pie, custard, that cup of milk from before – but what they communicate really is the sense of comfort that we get from food and a reminder of how magically good food could improve your mood and make the world a happier and more hopeful place when you were a kid. As we grow up, these retreats — whether into food or a book or a nap — are seen as escapism. They’re frowned upon because being adult is getting into a staring contest with Reality (Must. Not. Blink.). As kids, on the other hand, we instinctively know that retreating is also recharging your batteries and regrouping so that you can come back and charge at Reality a little more inventively and with a lot more inventively. The Ocean… is about many things and one of them is the importance of escaping; of knowing that particularly when you’re at your loneliest, your imagination will find you the friends you need.
It’s a funny thing – when we are kids, we take childhood matter-of-factly, as something that must be trekked through. We know it’s a magical time, we know we’re seeing more than adults do, we know the world is more immense for us than it is for adults, but all this doesn’t make being a kid special. Childhood just is. And then, when we’ve left those years so far behind that they seem irretrievable, little bits of scattered magic like The Ocean… act as reminders of how full of wonderment and light those years were.
The Ocean… is about a boy of 7 who lives in a little place in Sussex, England (where, incidentally, Gaiman himself grew up). He’s a solitary fellow who loves reading old books and myths, like the stories from ancient Egypt about animal-headed gods and goddesses. “I liked myths,” he explains at one point. “They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” It’s a good description for Gaiman’s own genre of writing too. Much like the best of his books, The Ocean… is for anyone and everyone. It’s a wonderful story for a child and it’s a magical novel for an adult.
As usual, Gaiman’s genuine respect for children is evident in the book. Children are not innocent, they’re not unaware, and they certainly don’t need adults to help them negotiate the world. Like a fully-grown person, the little boy in The Ocean… has his strengths and his weaknesses; unlike an adult, he dismisses nothing as impossible. And that’s why he has the adventure that he does.
It takes just two days for the boy in The Ocean… to leave his childhood behind. At the end of it, he looks the same and even he doesn’t entirely grasp the changes that have been wrought within him. But he has grown up. The distance between him and magic is a little more and he’s a little more blinkered than he was at the start of the novel. Even so, there’s a part of him that holds on to what the child in him knew and discovered: that there are worlds nudging the one we know as real and though they may seem unreal from an adult point of view, they’re no less tangible. The boy discovers new languages, the meaning of terror; he makes a friend, he discovers that a pond can be an ocean and he eats food that comforts his restless, frightened boyish heart.
When a man in the neighbourhood commits suicide in the boy’s father’s car, the boy discovers there’s a farm at the end of the lane on which he lives. Three people live on that farm – old Mrs. Hempstock, her daughter Ginnie Hempstock and her granddaughter Lettie Hempstock. (Yep, the Hempstocks are back. If you’ve read Stardust and The Graveyard Book, you’ll have met Lettie’s other relatives.) The little boy knows immediately that these three women aren’t regular people, but this doesn’t worry him because it’s evident that they’re taking care of him. Unfortunately, there is something out there that isn’t quite as kind and this creature uses the little boy to enter the world we see around us and create havoc.
The Ocean… begins with a funeral and goes on to include death, nightmares, blood, violence, infidelity and terrific pain. It’s a skinny little novel that, like memory, doesn’t stop for breath. It just unspools. The story is told in flashback – the boy has grown up when we meet him. He is himself a father of grown children now – and it’s only at the end of the book that you realise why Gaiman made his protagonist rewind. He’s been asked to tell a story that reveals how much of the precious bits of childhood he’s held on it. And, since he’s telling us the story, Gaiman’s made us, the readers, creatures of magic. We’re suspended in the ocean at the end of the lane, listening to the storyteller and examining both him and his story.
I can’t presume to imagine what it’s like to read The Ocean… as a child. I’ve been a dull, blinkered grown-up for too long, but for an adult, this novel shimmers. It isn’t my favourite Gaiman – that’s a tie between Neverwhere and American Gods. Just remembering those books and the alternate realities Gaiman created in them makes my every nerve-ending flare into a dandelion clock. But I loved The Ocean… . Not because it felt true – it did in many parts, and that’s worth cherishing given I’m a girl who grew up only on the other side of the planet from Sussex – but more so because it’s superbly written. Gaiman’s language, as always, is deceptively simple and full of delight. “You have to look at things closely to see the electrons,” Old Mrs. Hempstock tells the little boy. “They’re the little dinky ones that look like tiny smiles. The neutrons are the grey ones that look like frowns.” Smiley electrons and frowny neurons – how can you not love this version of Physics?
And then there are the elements in the story that remind me lenticular prints. Tilt your head and look at the moment, and there’s more than met the eye initially. POTENTIALLY SPOILERIFIC BITS AHEAD.
For example, there’s a terrifying episode when his father dunks the boy in the bath to punish him.
I flailed with my hands, trying to find something to hold on to, but there was nothing to grab, only the slippery sides of the bath I’d bathed in for the last two years. (I had read many books in that bath. It was one of my safe places. And now, I had no doubt, I was going to die there.)
The horror in this scene isn’t just that of his father inflicting such violence upon him, but that a safe place is being violated. But that’s also not the complete picture. It struck me that the boy, his father (who tries to kill him) and his grandfather (who tries to choke him in a nightmare) act as a chilling parallel to Lettie, her mother and her grandfather. The men are unthinking, easily swayed and violent. The women are magical, they nurture and they’re much more slippery.
The Hempstock women are quite obviously modelled upon the Fates, like the Norns of Norse mythology or the Moirai of the ancient Greeks. They even snip time and mend it at one point. But femininity is complicated business in The Ocean… . It can be well-intentioned but destructive – like Ursula Monkton, whose story is strangely reminiscent of Hathor when she transforms into her bloodthirsty avatar and goes on a terrible rampage. Hathor, meanwhile, is the cow goddess in Egyptian mythology and wouldn’t you know that the Hempstock farm has a cow whose milk comforts the little boy?
It’s the women who have the magic — both terrible and life-affirming — in The Ocean…, but it isn’t as though the magic simply descends into our world. We bring it in. We open doors that let creatures out of “Forever” and into our world. It’s because of the opal miner, the boy and the boy’s father that Ursula Monkton is able to prise open an entry. In contrast, the Hempstocks respect the divide between the two worlds and they keep one from the other. As we all know, a retreat is no longer a haven if everyone lands up there. So the world of the imagination, it’s sitting pretty and it’s there, protected by the likes of the Hempstocks, so that when you need run away from Reality, there’s a place where you’re safe and undisturbed.
One of my favourite passages from The Ocean… is this one, about the imagination or “the language of shaping” as Gaiman puts it:
In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed and breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, ‘Be whole,’ and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.
Retreat, dream, take the broken bits and piece them together in a story. Be whole. Amen.