Friday, September 6, 2013

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

If you'd asked me an hour before, I would have said no, I did not remember the way.  I do not even think I would have remembered Lettie Hempstock's name.  But standing in that hallway, it was all coming back to me.  Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me. Had you told me that I was seven again, I might have half-believed you, for a moment.
 But the real "Okay, get ready" moment came when I read:

I wondered if we had ever fallen in the water.  Had I pushed her into the duck pond, that strange girl who lived in the farm at the very bottom of the lane?  I remember her being in the water.  Perhaps she had pushed me in too.  Where did she go?  America?  No, Australia. That was it.  Somewhere a long way away.  
And it wasn't the sea.  It was the ocean.  
Lettie Hempstock's ocean.
I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.
Neil Gaiman has done it again.  He has totally confounded, dazzled, pushed, pulled, prodded, and befuddled what is left of my reason with this cautionary tale of childhood.

He tells his story through the eyes of a seven year old boy (come to think of it, I do not believe the boy was given a name) who is befriended by Lettie, an eleven year old girl who may or may not be as old as the universe.

Her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, has the ability to take her big black scissors in hand and snip out the bad things that a little boy does to get himself into trouble with his parents, and then carefully stitch everything back together so that there's no reason for anyone to be angry with him.  But care must be taken to make certain the edges match perfectly and the seams don't show.  One can't leave areas of gray emptiness where unpleasant things can creep in.  Hungry things.  Dark and shapeless things.

Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie's grandmother, can remember when the moon was made.

Are you getting a sense, yet,  of how very strange and magical this book is?  Well, hang on -because no one can drag a reader through the terrors which lurk in the landscape of childhood better than Neil Gaiman can.

If you asked me whether I liked The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, I would tell you I don't know yet.  It is amazing, yes.  It is.  But I will have to think about it.  I'll have to read it again before I know for certain.  I am not at all convinced it is a book one "likes" in any event.  It is a book one thinks about, and nibbles at, and sticks a toe into in order to get a feeling about it, and then dives into and swims around jumping into the duck pond at the end of the Hempstock's lane that really is an ocean after all.

It is an adult book about childhood fears that somehow never leave us.  Haunting is an appropriate adjective.

The little boy is waiting in the ring of grass where Lettie tells him he will be safe. He must wait there until she comes back for him.  No matter what he sees and whatever he hears, he must not venture out of the ring.  The voices, so resigned and so practical and so many in number tell him that nobody cares, no one is coming for him.  He is alone in the dark of the world.

"Now, step out of the circle and come to us.  One step is all it will take.  Just put one foot across the threshold and we will make all the pain go away forever:  the pain you feel now and the pain that is still to come.  It will never happen."
"How can you be happy in this world?  You have a hole in your heart.  You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know.  They will call you, as you grow.  There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time, until your loved ones give you poison and send you to anatomy, and even then you will die with a hole inside you, and you will wail and curse at a life ill-lived.  But you won't grow.  You can come out, and we will end it, cleanly, or you can die there, of hunger and of fear.  And when you are dead your circle will mean nothing, and we will tear out your heart and take your soul for a keepsake. "
"P'raps it will be like that," I said, to the darkness and the shadows, "and p'raps it won't.  And p'raps if it is, it would have been like that anyway.  I'm still going to wait here for Lettie Hempstock and she's going to come back to me.  And if I die here, then I still die waiting for her, and that's a better way to go than you and all you stupid horrible things tearing me to bits because I've got something inside me I don't even want"....At that moment, for once in my childhood, I was not scared of the dark.... 
Gaiman knows every half opened closet door, every dark place under the bed, every whisper heard outside the bedroom window, and all the shadows from the leaf-less trees that reach out their grasping branch fingers by the light of the moon.

He might be Peter Pan.  He may be a mad genius.  Or perhaps he is a seven year old boy perched on top of a drainpipe getting ready to jump.  Whoever he is, we are lucky he is.


  1. What a wonderful review. I'm reading this to my sister (we are both adults but we still like me reading to her), so I haven't finished it yet -- I'm just at the bit where it's starting to get truly terrifying (when the father tries to drown him in the bathtub), and I can't wait to see where it goes next.

  2. Jenning: Reading to each other. I love that. We should never lose that ability to enjoy reading to each other and listening to the read word. This is a wonderful book to read out loud because of the rich word usage, but it was a very difficult one to review because it is so unusual. It is really a trip into Gaiman's mind - which, let's face it, is a dangerous place. Read on and let me know what you think.

  3. Fascinating review. And you remind me of my mother when she was a little girl. She tried an olive for the first time and wasn't sure she liked it--so she had to keep tasting and tasting and tasting..........

  4. Tinky, being compared to Taffy in any way, shape or form is an honor. By the way, did she ever decide she liked olives? I was anxious to read this book and actually pre-ordered it. I'm not disappointed, but it is the sort of thing that requires a re-read to be fully appreciated. It's almost impossible to review. At least it was for me.

  5. My husband has this in the pile of books next to his side of the bed. I have to wait my turn but I look forward to it!

  6. Great review. I'm definitely going to try this one. I like your comment that Gaiman is a bit of a mad genius. I haven't always liked his stories (and I still have American Gods on my TBR pile) but I've loved some of his other ones. But a recommendation from you is enough for me. I'll let you know (when I get there in about six months' time).

  7. Stefanie, it's pretty quick read, so maybe you can sneak it off Bookman's side table and read it under the covers before he misses it!

    Pete, I think you will enjoy this one. I mean it when I say, I think it takes more than one read to get the whole thing,and I seem to remember you do not like to re-read. Nevertheless, I think you'll find it fascinating.

  8. I admit I haven't read any Gaiman before... or seen movies based on his works. Maybe I've been scared away by something too 'far-fetched' I might find in them. But your review is beautiful. It will have to wait though for a certain mood, and certain frame of mind, before I would attempt Ocean, I think. Too busy catching up on life coming back from the big TO. But, thanks for this very well-written review, Grad.

  9. Arti, I'd start with The Graveyard Book when delving into Gaiman. He's odd, I'll admit. But his stuff is magical - although mind boggling. I'm still not sure I understand it! I've never seen any of the movies based on his work. I don't think I'd want to since so much of his stuff relies upon the individual imagination of the reader.

  10. I'm intrigued ... and Lettie Hempstock is a wonderful name!

  11. Vintage, Lettie Hempstock is also an intriguing character. This is pure Gaiman!

  12. Hi Grad,

    Would you be interested in a Proust read-along? We're into Vol. II of In Search of Lost Time: Within a Budding Grove. Just posted about it. ;)

  13. Count me in!! I'll have to catch up, but I am all in!

    1. Great! Looking forward to our virtual 'Proustian party' with Madeleines and tea! I'd post midway Oct. 30, then the final wrap up post Nov. 30. Enjoy the ride! ;)