I don’t usually take a stab at reviewing books, I’d rather be reading them or writing them, however I just finished Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane a couple days ago and I really loved it. It’s a short book compared to his other adult novels and by far the simplest, in terms of story and world building. Rather than a detriment, it is used to advantage, however. The book has echoes of the children’s literature he’s been writing of late. As the narrator says towards the beginning, “I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” And Ocean captures this idea very well.
It is condensed Gaiman, the very essence of the storyteller, trimmed down. This story seemed to be the most autobiographical amongst his published works. In the acknowledgements he thanks his family for being allowed to plunder his childhood. I was left with the feeling that most of what happened in the book may actually have happened in his childhood.
For me, who grew up a sort of awkward, bright young boy, it spoke directly to my childhood experience. It was a time of confusion and occasional melancholy as the people around me struggled to create meaning in their own lives. There was throughout the book themes of absence and loneliness. The parents were virtually never present for most of the book, only to occasionally pop in and create some degree of emotional upheaval or as in the bathtub scene, actual violence. Nevertheless, the main character is still a child who loves his mummy and daddy and who wants to be with them and his sister, safe and sound. At one point he says that he would like things to be the way they had been before.
But as he attempts to adapt to change, it’s in the character of Lettie that he finds safety and with her family, the Hempstocks, which are a representation of a triune of female gods – the Maiden- in Lettie, the Mother – in Ginnie and the Crone – in Old Mrs. Hempstock. His friendship with Lettie gives him with the confidence and strength that he lacks in order to address the problem of Ursula Monkton, who is a sort of interdimensional interloper who is determined to inject herself into the world of humans. Lettie is for him a great boon and he loves her like a best friend in the innocent and complete way that only children are capable, whether she’s 11 or 11 times 3 or 4000 years.
As with any Gaiman story, the end of the primary complication is not the end of the story. When the problem of Ursula is solved, a bigger problem springs up in the hunger birds that could mean his death. Lettie sacrifices herself to save his life and while she doesn’t die, she does have to go away. In this case, beneath ‘the ocean,’ a pond on the Hempstock property that is representative of the universe and creation – in order to heal and hopefully come back.
The protagonist returns every few years, with no memory of his previous visits, to check on her return and we the readers are left with a sense of the dying and resurrecting hero. The loss of Lettie is tragic but also hopeful, one day she may return, just as one day we as people may return to what she represents.
Gaiman’s personal mythology really shines through in this latest book and I’m left to wonder – for him what does Lettie represent? Is the loss of the Maiden representative of a loss of childhood? Of innocence? And is her status as not being dead, but away and healing, a hopeful sentiment that we as a society may bring our own child-self back?
At the end of the book, as the main character drives away he sees the moon in double, reflected in his rearview mirror. One image a full moon, the other as a half moon. In the symbolism of goddess worship there would be another moon on the opposite side that would mirror the other half (or in some cases quarter) moon. Also at the end, Ginnie is there and Old Mrs. Hempstock, but at times they blur and become one character, but they’re still missing their Lettie, their other third of the whole.
In all, this was a beautiful book, perfect in its simplicity and sure to secure Neil Gaiman’s already profound impact on the genre. It dips beyond storytelling and into mythology. As modern writers, we are all standing in his shadow.