Matthew Judge ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff
Prior to The Ocean at the End of the Lane, my only experiences with acclaimed author Neil Gaiman were the cinematic interpretations of his books Stardust and Coraline, and his co-written film Mirrormask. I didn’t necessarily expect greatness going into this book, but because of Gaiman’s reputation I was expecting something. That something turned out to be a whole lot of nothing, but I’m not quite sure that nothing has ever been written so beautifully.
Ocean begins with an unnamed protagonist and the funeral of a character whose identity is never revealed, and the rest of the novel follows suit in that the specifics are left up in the air. Much like the sea, the majority of this tale is a mystery, but its ideas and implications are food enough for the hungry reader, if you’re willing to forgive an open ending and some vague characterization.
Before anyone’s permanently turned away from Ocean, it does have a plot. After an introduction featuring its hero as an adult, the story jumps to his childhood, where he lives in relative normalcy in farm country with his parents and younger sister. Things begin their descent into strangeness when their live-in tenant steals their car and commits suicide in the front seat. Apparently, suicide opens the doorway for otherworldly creatures to creep into the boy’s world, and from there the plot spirals from one bizarre occurrence to the next.
The young boy meets a slightly older girl named Lettie Hemptstock who’s apparently been stuck in pre-pubescence for a very long time, ventures with her to try and banish a gargantuan tent-like monster back to “where it came from,” returns home to find that the same monster has taken human form and infiltrated his family, has part of his life sewn (literally sewn) out of existence by Lettie’s grandmother, and finally faces off against a pack of avian shadow-creatures that scour the universe looking for things to devour. If this sounds like it doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t. There’s coherence in how each event links with the next, but the adventure itself is so outlandish that I wondered if it wouldn’t be more enjoyable after a couple of drinks. The calamity is fun and unexpected; I only put the book down once before finishing it, but the whole experience felt like reading a poem by a classic author whose view on life was dialed two or three numbers off from my own.
What Ocean lacks in familiarity, it makes up for in overarching themes. One of the most prominent is the way in which children see the world, how they’re willing to open up to or shut out specific things based on their innocent but contrastingly all-knowing naivety. The boy immediately accepts that fantastical beings populate his world upon seeing them; he doesn’t try and convince himself that he’s hallucinating or crazy, like I would do under similar circumstances. On the other hand, when he witnesses primary antagonist Ursula Monkton seducing his father, he dismisses it as something he doesn’t understand and hurries away.
Ocean perfectly corners this brazen balance of acceptance and dismissal that children master with infinitely more ease than adults, and watching the boy make his decisions stirred a sadness in me for times when life was simpler. I asked myself, “Did I lose the ability to see life like this, or have I just dulled it with self-inflicted cynicism?” Even if this story’s plot lacks clarity, it brought some clarity to me, and whenever an author manages to accomplish something like this I can’t help but be impressed.
Lettie Hempstock, her mother, and her grandmother are interesting in the actions they perform, such as the aforementioned sewing and a binding ritual in which Lettie uses discarded toys and knickknacks to hold Ursula in place, but their motives are never concrete; they are influenced by and move based on Ursula’s actions, which makes Ocean’s deadly villainous the most compelling character of the bunch. She begins the tale as a mass of evil fabric (just one more strange thing that needs accepting if you decide to read this book), but quickly takes human form and infiltrates the boy’s household. She strips him of freedom, forbidding him from seeing Lettie or even leaving his property, all in the pursuit of preventing the Hempstocks from opposing her goal of “making people happy.”
Ursula represents the opposite of Ocean’s young hero. Instead of the uncertainty and lack of power that comes from being young in an adult-dominated world, Ursula knows how to take control and is fierce in her determination to maintain it. When she loses that power and falls into desperation, however, Ocean raises a perfect question: is the illusion of power the only line that separates children and adults?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is wonderfully written, eye-opening in its descriptive language, and illustrates some of the key differences between seeing things through youthful or experienced eyes. Its plot, however, might be too strange for the casual reader. It captures the fanciful spontaneity and absurdity of fairytales, but Gaiman runs the risk of losing his powerful themes by filling Ocean with countless amounts of crazy.