‘The Ocean At The End of the Lane’ is a modern day fairytale

Strange dim memories, which will not abide identification, often, through misty windows of the past, look out upon me in the broad daylight, but I never dream now.

 – George Macdonald, Lilith

There is no distinct line that separates childhood from adulthood. The transition is fluid, as our lives flow through a filter of time. So much is lost that we can never recover. It is why our memories are so important to us; they’re not simply a mirror into our past, but a reservoir that reveals who we are. It’s how we know ourselves and others.

But so often, our memories are muddled, a hazy mirage that is as often misleading as it is true. Especially from our childhood. Do our memories recall the wonder and amazement that permeated our minds? The fantastical worlds we created? 

For myself, the answer is no. I have glimpses, but not a clear picture of the perception forged in my childhood’s imagination. Sometimes something will trigger my memory in a new way, a book, or a song, or a film. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End of the Lane is one of those books.

oceanGaiman has an innate talent portraying the grey area between fantasy and reality. His other books, like Neverwhere and American Gods, deliver worlds and characters that live beneath the veneer of reality, in our world but not in it, all at once. The subconscious mythologies we have created and then left forgotten. The Ocean At The End of the Lane is much the same, only this mythology is rooted in childhood. Gaiman sets up a frame narrative where a man returns to his childhood home for a funeral. On his way to the wake, the man finds his thoughts returning to his days as a child in this small English village. He drives aimlessly along his old road, past his old house, literally taking a trip down memory lane, until he comes to its end, to the Hempstock house.

An old woman is there to welcome him in, and he accepts her invitation, although neither of them seem to quite recollect the other. As they talk, his memories slowly seep back into his mind. He remembers a small pond in their backyard, that the woman’s daughter, Lettie Hempstock had affectionately dubbed “ocean.” He walks down to it, and pauses to reflect back on the summer that he met the Hempstocks, the summer when he was seven. The summer he saw the veil of reality pulled back, when he witnessed the old magic.

The majority of the novel is now told by our narrator’s seven year-old self. Gaiman taps into his own inner child, and the character consequently feels completely alive. Sometimes frightened, sometimes reckless; petulant, kind, cruel, and always aware that there is more to the world than he knows. The story is a mishmash of genres and tones: it can get frighteningly dark, confronting child abuse, suicide, adultery, and the affect these things can have on a child. But it is also warm and comforting, full of bravery and self sacrifice and humour. 

The Ocean At The End of the Lane is a modern day fairytale — one which doesn’t moralize so much as reflect our morals, our ideas, our sense of reality, and forces us to confront it. Gaiman accomplishes this not only through his blend of archetypical characters and relatable, everyday problems which confront them, but through clean and simple prose that knows the right time for a metaphor, and the right time to use simple language that allows us to relate using our own childhood memories. It’s a children’s book perfectly suited for adults, and an adult book perfectly suited for children. 

Photo (Flickr CC) by Tom Woodward.