This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
The last time I reviewed a book on this website, it was a work by the same author. I read it almost four years ago, and whatever sentiments I’ve harboured when engrossed in the pages can now only be recalled by going over what I wrote about it after the fact. The same applies to past experiences, be it impressive or unremarkable: the more often it is conjured, the quicker the arrival of the sobering realisation that we only remember the last time it came to mind. The constant dissonance between present day and what has been filed can make one wonder if the average adult is, in fact, a child occupying a much larger body. Neil Gaiman has long been famous for doing away with the delineations of time, what with his writings constantly jumping across its intended age brackets. In the 2013 children’s fantasy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he once again explores the precisely that.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with the protagonist revisiting his hometown for a funeral. He dreads the possibility of enduring the usual chatter with vague faces, all instantly recognisable once upon a time, but now only united in their somber garb. Just before finds himself in the thick of it all, he stops by his where his boyhood home used to be, then proceeds down another road. Despite its physical transformation over the years he’s known it, the carries a story well over the asphalt surface, — and later across the bumpy ridges of the narrower dirt stretch — lost over the years.
Somehow, he knows when to stop his car. He exits his vehicle at the Hempstocks’, and makes his way to visit a very good and incredibly unforgettable friend. Past the sharp stench of cow dung, he makes his way to the red-brick farmhouse, in hopes of a reunion that would make his return less grievous. Gradually, he senses the familiarity of his surroundings. He enters and is greeted by the matriarch. She remembers him and who he is looking for, but lets him work through his own memories. He asks if he can wander out out back to the duck pond that has defined a significant part of his childhood. After he sits, briefly gazes at his reflection in the water, and spends a few moments reacclimatising himself with what used to be familiar even in the dark, he suddenly remembers Lettie Hempstock. Then, comes everything else. The hazy excerpts of the events that transpired four decades ago become as clear as the passing seconds he spends on the bench, and the body of water in front of him seems to grow a lot larger…
… and he finds himself turning another year older in the midst of his books, after no one attends his birthday party. Unbeknownst to him, a life-defining adventure is just down the road.
It took me a while to get to the meat and potatoes of the story, — even once setting the book aside and returning to it with fresher eyes — but Neil Gaiman’s recent work is, as always, vivid, both in its beautiful and painful moments. The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been lauded as a fairytale for adults, which possibly means it is probably as metaphor-laden as it is an innocent recollection. In fact, the common perception of fairytales are catered for children does not mean the stories within are devoid of conflict. Original versions are grisly, and that alone tackles the modern notion of whether or not little ones are truly immune from witnessing evil in the rawest form their young minds can handle. It is also said that some elements of the story are semi-autobiographical, which intrigues and frightens me equally.
This isn’t also to say that what may or may not have actually transpired was distorted by misinterpretation. The main narrative sits right between the two phases, with the adult protagonist acknowledging present day only in the beginning and the end of the novel. In its broadest definition, it is ageist to assume that a child’s narration is less reliable than an adult’s. The in-between realm has been masterfully approached by Gaiman in his previous work, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no exception.
Being an adult is usually accompanied with unspoken yet strict norms of how to behave, structure thoughts, and perceive things. All of them take a united front against our inner child. Rationalising events puts things in perspective, but at its worst, it takes away the story’s power to heal and repair the wounds sustained by the hard knocks of life. The protagonist, who seeks temporary respite from the close proximity of death, instinctively takes to his and eleven-year-old Lettie’s ocean and, like many other times, indulges in a time less encumbered. For part of an evening, he is seven years of age once more, finding inspiration and courage in the hand of his older friend to look into the eyes of the dark.