Before I started with this book, I had heard of Neil Gaiman in passing and was unacquainted with his body of work. Yes, I was living under a rock. I’d read various articles on various forums about his brilliance and I’d added him to my list of ‘authors-to-read-sometime-in-my-life.’ Now that I think about how long it took me to pick up one of his books, I am surprised by my stupidity. Before I delve into the world of Lettie Hempstock and our 7-year-old protagonist, let me be done with my disclaimers. This was my first Gaiman and I had little idea of what his work was like. I’d heard his praises but I’d never even read the blurb of any of his books. I also have very limited exposure to fantasy and magical realism in literature. With that out of the way, let me begin…
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book I picked up when I was going through a book slump. I’d looked through various books on my shelf and while I wanted to read all of them, I didn’t feel the connect to pick any of them up immediately. But something about a girl floating under water, breathing out and seeming to reach above the dark, royal blue waters had me marveling at the cover. It’s rare to find such beautiful artwork on a book cover these days. To say that the cover spoke to me would be a cliché and yet, that is precisely what happened.
I hadn’t read the book blurb before starting the book and went in with no idea of what to expect. The book begins with a ‘Chapter 0’ before the prologue and this ‘chapter’ was barely a hundred words and I knew I wouldn’t be putting the book down anytime soon. The voice of the narrator was etched out clearly and precisely in a mere hundred words. I kid you not; I cannot get over this flagrant display of masterful writing.
In less than 200 pages, Gaiman has managed to create a magnificent childhood story with supernatural creatures, a wonderfully described pastoral setting, the fight between shades of grey, the emotions running through the mind of a young boy and wisdom of the ages encapsulated in the brain of an aging grandmother. He has also added in a subtext of how all evil is a manifestation of our wants.
I enjoyed Gaiman’s portrayal of a lonely, 7 year old boy and his quaint friendship with Lettie Hempstock. I loved how he described Old Mrs. Hempstock and Ursula Monkton. It’s easy to forget the tone of your protagonist when describing things that happened years ago but never once did Gaiman fail to make it sound like the little boy was talking to me.
The story flowed effortlessly. There wasn’t a single line of text that I felt was avoidable or fluff. This was crisp, clear, and very condensed. I enjoyed reading a 7 year old boy’s easy acceptance of magical moments and his incredulity at the mundane, non-magical experiences. This book had its moments of solemnity and levity but both were sparse and merely peppered the incredibly fast paced narrative. Watching the Hempstocks deal with the evil creature and their interactions with the narrator as well as each other, one could almost feel a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos. I was frequently left smiling at their dialogues.
This book is a recounting of a childhood adventure that was forgotten by the narrator until he revisited it. But under this pretext, Gaiman has offered us a wonderful opportunity to make the journey from our adulthood to the remembrance of our childhood. This entire story seems to reiterate the futility of the human mind to remember past occurrences and it makes me wish I’d started writing a journal years ago. I wonder just what memories lurk within me that are “obscured under the things that come later…but are never forgotten for good.”
To say anything of the story would be tantamount to giving away crucial plot twists. I will however quote a passage that shows off Gaiman’s writing prowess in the hopes that if you’ve been living the same rock I was, then this passage will urge you to turn it over and read Gaiman.
“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.
Everything whispered inside me. Everything spoke to everything, and I knew it all.”