I know it seems like heresy to say it, but I’m often left under-whelmed by Neil Gaiman’s writing. Too often it feels over-slick. Too polished. As if it were written with the sale of the film rights in mind. However well-written it is, his work often lacks … something. Some essential heart that this reader can connect to. But that’s not the case with The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Famously, this novel was written when Neil was going through a rocky patch in his still-new marriage to artist and performer Amanda Palmer. He was seeking to explain himself to his wife through his art, drawing on aspects of his childhood to tell a story about a young boy’s coming of age. Although the novel is only very loosely semi-autobiographical, it finally seems like we get something that is authentically Neil coming through on the page, rather than just a highly commercial product.
There is deep, mythic truthfulness in this story of a young boy struggling to come to terms with his family’s difficult financial circumstances and friendship with the girl who lives down the lane. The narrator’s world is destabilised first by the suicide of the family’s lodger, and then by the arrival of a new nanny, Ursula Monckton, who embarks on an affair with the boy’s father.
The narrator escapes from these changes to his world through his friendship with Lettie Hempstock. Her family’s home is a safe place for him to escape to from the difficulties at home. Lettie is part playmate, part protector, helping him to deal with the challenges of home.
All of this is carefully shown to us through the allegory of a story with very English fairy-tale elements. Ursula Monckton is a monster from the edges of reality. Woken by the lodger’s suicide, she has found her way to the ‘real’ world and begins to take it over. Lettie, with the narrator’s help, is able to banish it, but at a great price. The narrator is left with a ‘door’ in his heart to the very edges of reality.
Although written from the perspective of a child, this is an adult story of changing relationship dynamics, grief and loss. It’s dark and terrifying and peppered with lyrically-written insights into growing up and the human condition. Rarely has a book made me pause so often to reflect on a sentence or two.
But it’s a slippery fish, this book. Just like Lettie Hempstock’s ocean, when one is within it the secrets of the world are laid out for your perfect comprehension. Close its pages and it recedes into a half-forgotten childhood memory.
Goodreads rating: 5*