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Monday, December 1, 2014

Am I a Fangirl Now? Reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane


If you've struggled deciding whether or not to read a Neil Gaiman work, quit fighting it and start reading his adult fantasy novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane.♦ 

I am usually stubbornly wary of bandwagons. Universal acclaim makes me suspicious, and that suspicion that I am being forced by the mobs to love certain things unfortunately keeps me from enjoying stellar shows like Game of Thrones or The Wire until years later. I am typically more susceptible to waves of fandom in regard to books (Babysitter’s Club series, anyone? Gone Girl? The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo?). But somehow I made it into my third decade of life without reading a Neil Gaiman book.
       Now, I know not everyone reads Neil Gaiman books. Yet, I’ve always felt a certain twinge of guilt at not jumping on that particular bandwagon. I resisted because amongst my younger friends it seems as though love for Gaiman is nearly required, as is participation in the cult of his personality (his Twitter feed, the movies made from his books, and his wife Amanda Palmer’s music). I felt like being an avid Neil Gaiman fan was a kind of obsessive work, and I’ve never been interested in joining clubs that require so much attention span from members.
       However, this summer I came across a beautiful, haunting cover on a staff selection book in Joseph-Beth Booksellers. It was Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, with a woman floating under dark water at the top of the cover. The review blurbs that crowded the book exclaimed that it was a perfect capsule of childhood within an adult fantasy novel. I sighed and decided my Gaiman resistance had come to an end, and proceeded to devour the book in a couple of days.
       The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells the story of an adult man who is pulled toward his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock’s house at the end of his old road. He sits down by the pond Lettie swore was an ocean, and starts to remember a horrible adventure from his childhood. The protagonist, who has no name, meets Lettie when he is seven and she seems eleven. Strange things have been happening in their neighborhood, like a coin coming out of the boy’s mouth after a dream, his family’s lodger committing suicide in their car, and a dead fish from Lettie’s ocean with a coin in its belly. The boy allows Lettie to take him on a trip to rid the neighborhood of the nuisance, and he quickly gathers the trip is not just a hike in the woods. He unknowingly serves as a vehicle back to the real world for a monster that comes to be known as his family’s new housekeeper, Ursula Monkton. Ursula is a classic villain who terrorizes every character and has “the hugest, toothiest grin [the narrator] had ever seen on a human face.”
       The monster does battle with Lettie, her mother Ginnie, and her grandmother Hempstock throughout the book. At last they come to realize that, if Ursula is to be destroyed, they'll have to call on another enemy to do it. Given these high stakes, it should come as no surprise that the ending is not without a sense of tragic loss, though I'll not spoil it by saying more here. All of the powerful Hempstock characters are female, which Gaiman explains near the end when the boy, now a man, asks Ginnie Hempstock about the lack of male counterparts. She explains that her brothers went out into the world, and the protagonist asks if Lettie or Ginnie ever had fathers. “No, love. We never went in for that sort of thing. You only need men if you want to breed more men,” is the somewhat tart reply. Ginnie’s explanations, however, leave a ton of questions about the Hempstock past unanswered for me. There is another entire novel about the Hempstock family waiting to be written that goes far beyond this one adventure with a young boy.
       The readability of this book is not in dispute. Although marketed as an adult novel, complete with an adult woman in the titular ocean on the cover, the book only clocks in at a brief 178 pages. The vocabulary in this book is childlike and at times syrupy, with trite phrases like “The ice chip in my heart seemed to warm then, and melt, and I began to feel whole and safe once more,” but Gaiman gets away with it because the boy telling the story is only seven. The author throws in a few more complicated vocabulary words like “inviolate” but the majority of the language is vividly naive. That language makes it possible for adult readers such as myself to speed through the mystery of the boy’s nightmare time with evil Ursula and the magical Hempstocks.
       The content, though structured simply, is not as innocent as an actual children’s story. Gaiman inserts a scene where the protagonist witnesses his father having sex with Ursula Monkton. He is just as afraid of his father wrapped around Ursula as he was when the father attempted to drown him in the bathtub at Ursula’s instruction. The author does not linger on the boy’s witness of his father’s seduction, but it is enough to remind you this is not a bedtime story for actual seven-year-olds. Gaiman also plays up the horror aspect by using every child’s fear that the security of his home will be changed, and Ursula not only usurps the mother’s place but also causes the family to turn on the boy in violent ways. The scenes of horror are somehow more frightening because of the child’s point of view, as in the scene in which the boy makes a break for the Hempstock farm while Ursula chases above him, floating in the air and threatening to have his father trap him in the attic, saying, “every night, he’ll drown you in the bath, he’ll plunge you into the cold, cold water.” The poor boy is automatically a tender, compelling protagonist due to his age, let alone the torture by Ursula.
       It is difficult to write a book about childhood adventure and loss that is satisfying for adults. The Ocean at the End of the Lane succeeds in being a great story woven by a great storyteller, but the actual substance is fleeting once the book has been finished. There are many questions left unanswered at the end, which felt less mysterious to me than hurried. I enjoyed reading the book, but I am more interested in delving into larger Gaiman tomes like American Gods now to see if the great storyteller also has some great prose in his arsenal.

  • About the Author
    Stacey Gunckle is currently a Creative Writing major at Miami University. She has written several articles for the Miami Student, as well as reviews for the defunct Miami arts weekly The Amusement. Future plans include staying in school forever, also known as joyfully working toward a PhD.

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