The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman, Headline, RRP£16.99 / William Morrow, RRP$25.99, 256 pages
It begins with a funeral and ends with a death. Yet The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t a morbid novel. Neil Gaiman, one of the best fabulists of our age, knows that telling stories is a good way of keeping the dark at bay. He also knows that the stories that do the job best are those with plenty of the dark already within them.
Our narrator, who is unnamed throughout the novel, returns to his native Sussex to bury a relative – also unidentified. While driving to visit the house he lived in between the ages of five and 12, he finds all the changes you might expect after 40-odd years have passed: fields have become housing estates, muddy country lanes are now asphalt roads. Unchanged, though, is the red-brick farmhouse once inhabited by his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock.
When he sees the duckpond is still at the bottom of the farmhouse garden, the narrator is drawn into a vivid reminiscence about his past, specifically about the year he turned seven. His family have taken in a lodger, an opal miner from South Africa. Overcome with guilt after gambling away the savings entrusted to him by friends, he commits suicide. The car in which the man kills himself is parked by the Hempstocks’, and that is where the narrator first meets Lettie, a strange, self-confident country girl, with “a soft Sussex accent and sharp grey-blue eyes”.
She introduces him to the duckpond, which she calls an ocean. In it floats a fish that has choked to death on a sixpence. The association of death with money becomes a core theme of the novel.
It soon becomes clear that the three Hempstocks – Lettie, her mother and her grandmother – are otherworldly beings, gifted with clairvoyance and the kind of skills and wisdom that would once have been called witchcraft. They are a homespun, rustic version of the classic female trinity of folklore and myth, Robert Graves’s pagan triple goddess: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. This trio of archetypes has appeared in Gaiman’s work before, notably as the housemates Thessaly, Hazel, and Foxglove in the A Game Of You instalment of his epic comic book saga, Sandman.
When the narrator wakes up one morning with a shilling mysteriously stuck in his throat, he runs to the Hempstocks for help, fearing the ghost of the opal miner is haunting him. In fact, he has been singled out for attention by an altogether more sinister creature. Lettie, guided by a hazel wand, leads him into another realm where the sky is “the dull orange of a warning light” and plants look “as if they had been beaten from gun-metal”. Here they encounter a gargantuan, ragged monster that claims it wants to make humans happy by giving them what they want – principally money. The monster manages to worm its way into the narrator’s foot and thus gains a toehold in our world.
It manifests in the form of Ursula Monkton, a young, attractive housekeeper who is hired by the narrator’s family and is soon working her wiles on his father. A scene where the father, in a fit of maddened rage, almost drowns the boy on purpose in the bath is chillingly rendered.
Later, as our narrator spies on his father and Ursula in an adulterous tryst, Gaiman artfully evokes the pragmatic, moralistic mindset of a seven-year-old. The youngster is neither enthralled nor repelled by what he sees: “I was not sure what I was looking at. My father had Ursula Monkton pressed up against the side of the big fireplace in the far wall. He had his back to me. She did too, her hands pressed against the huge high mantelpiece.” Nonetheless he senses instinctively that there has been a violation of the proper order of things.
Defeating Ursula entails sacrifice and loss, and so does growing up, and that is what The Ocean at the End of the Lane is really about. Our certainties fall away as we age and our innate belief in magic and our love of imagination wanes. Adults really are, as the narrator ponders, merely “children wrapped in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long books. The kind with no pictures or conversations.”
The novel is a children’s book, in the sense that it is a book about childhood. A child could read and enjoy it but only an adult will appreciate its bittersweet nuances and subtle sadnesses. In prose as delicate and diaphanous as a cobweb, and with a painstakingly precise use of symbolism, Gaiman traces one boy’s journey from innocence, through fear and regret, to experience. In doing so, he traces all of our journeys, and beautifully.
James Lovegrove is author of ‘Age of Voodoo’ (Solaris)