This is a strange little book, but thoroughly compelling.
The narrator (who, as usual, resembles Neil Gaiman more than he doesn’t, though he confesses in the afterword that the familial circumstances are nothing like his own) is a middle-aged man returning to the village he lived in as a child, for a funeral. Wandering in avoidance of other people, he finds himself at the Hempstock house at the end of the lane, and remembers that, forty years earlier, a strange man committed suicide in a car there. The narrative then drops us back through the decades, where the narrator is a seven-year-old boy in a family facing financial difficulties and emotional tension.
The stranger’s death sets off a strange chain of events, unleashing an eldritch creature who wants to destroy the narrator’s family and, perhaps, the world as we know. Standing between him and danger is Lettie Hempstock, who takes responsibility for him because, it seems, responsibility is a bit of a family trait. Lettie is eleven, and may have been eleven for a very long time. She has deep knowledge, considerable power of her own, and an utterly normal way of talking. She promises to protect the narrator, no matter what, and he thinks he’d die for her.
Gaiman’s prose is, as ever, entrancing — elegant and brutal at the same time. He can paint you the mysticism of the Fae and a chillingly mundane reality in one smooth stroke. There’s a lot of power in juxtaposition.
This book is, at its heart, a childhood fantasy — in the very least twee and charming way I could possibly mean those words. Horrors are everywhere when you’re a kid, and the world is so much bigger than you can possibly comprehend. So of course you wander off the path — if you didn’t, you’d never find out anything. The woods behind your house go on forever, and there really could be an ocean at the end of the lane, for all you know. And adults are mysterious, inexplicable creatures. Creatures who can be quite thoroughly menacing, because, as this book points out — and as too many abuse victims have discovered through the ages — they are large, and powerful, and who would ever believe a child with an incredible story? Even a child just a few years older than you are seems impossibly more skilled, an initiate into mysteries you know nothing about yet — but will, someday. It’s a terrifying way to exist. It’s a wonder any of us get past it, that we don’t just freeze up in anxiety and indecision and refuse to step either forward or back.
And yet, for all of that, don’t you miss it?
Not all the time, of course, but I think most of us have a little piece of our hearts that still yearns for the days when anything seemed possible, even if the anythings were horrible. A part of us that could still believe in the incredible, in such a primal way that’s hope and fear mixed together. We remember when the world seemed bigger, when more things seemed possible, when we hadn’t learned just how many limitations and constrictions the world will place on us, and we regret what age and experience have done to us, what they’ve taken away. Cynicism builds walls, makes your feet tread familiar paths. It’s this bittersweet nostalgia that Gaiman captures so beautifully, and that is the real genius behind The Ocean at the End of the Lane.