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The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Rebecca Foster

Neil Gaiman


There once was a boy who stumbled upon tragedy that blighted his life, and deep magic that almost made it all better - all on one country lane. Neil Gaiman is well loved for his comics and young adult fantasies, rich soups of dark fairy tale and cosy English charm. In his latest novel he brings his considerable talents to bear on the story of his own childhood - or any childhood, for that matter - in a fable that shows how clinging to magic can temper the awfulness of everyday life.

The novel opens with a middle-aged man returning to his boyhood village in Sussex for a funeral. Making a nostalgic pilgrimage to the house he lived in from ages five to 12, he spots a familiar-looking farm and stops to see if any members of the Hempstock clan are still in residence. He seems to remember his friend Lettie Hempstock claimed that the duckpond at the end of the lane was actually an ocean. All at once the events surrounding his seventh birthday rush back in a bittersweet flood of memory.

'Nobody came to my seventh birthday party,' he recalls. He was a lonely boy who retreated into books for company; 'Books were safer than other people anyway.' Even as a child he is dimly aware of family turmoil: they can no longer afford their rambling house and must take in a succession of lodgers. One lodger, a South African opal miner with money troubles, drives the family car to the end of the lane to commit suicide, and something about this death unleashes sinister forces around the town. For the boy, finding a wormhole in his foot is just the beginning.

His parents hire a new housekeeper who does not just lock the boy in his room and flirt with his father, but seems to be a larger-than-life representation of evil, embodying all his childhood fears. She and Lettie wage cataclysmic battle, while the boy endures a dark night of the soul. He must trust Lettie to save him from the powers that threaten to destroy him, although the true horror of this night may well lie closer to home.

The Hempstocks are perhaps the most intriguing characters in the book: Lettie, her mother, Ginnie, and her grandmother together form a matriarchal trinity. Like witches or Fates, they exist outside of time (they come from 'the old country', also called 'Forever'); they are old enough to remember the birth of the moon, yet modern enough to understand bacteria and electron decay. They mingle science and superstition, snippingand stitching time in a place where 'the barriers between life and death were thin.' Indeed, the Hempstock farm, like the 'thin places' of Celtic spirituality, is a site where this world and the next are not so far apart.

Lettie, though an 11-year-old girl, functions as a Christ figure in the novel, for the boy must follow her on a faith journey even though he does not understand her parable-like stories: 'I wish you'd explain properly ... You talk in mysteries all the time.' She is a loyal guide on the boy's spiritual quest, prompting the confession, 'I had faith in Lettie Hempstock ... she had never let go of my hand'. Even when he faces a crowd of ghostly voices trying to tempt him outside Lettie's protective fairy ring - 'Just put one foot across the threshold and we will make all the pain go away for ever,' they call - the boy survives his desert temptation with Lettie on his side.

In a curious revision of the baptismal rite, Lettie then brings the boy her ocean in a bucket. As he plunges in, he feels a sense of total knowledge and connection. Lettie's ocean is like the ground and source of life, a stand-in for the Creator or a pantheistic vision of all life bound into one. It comes as no surprise that a figure consistently likened to Christ also meets a sacrificial end: Lettie saves the boy by offering herself up to the ocean - not a death, but a return to the Source - in language that unmistakably evokes a pietà: 'The girl beside me, on her mother's lap, at her mother's breast, had given her life for mine.'

Gaiman sets up a fascinating rift between memory and illusion. His recreation of a child's perspective from the vantage point of middle age is remarkably successful. What a child believes about the past can sometimes be entirely different to adult memory. For instance, the boy knows it was an awful day when they found their lodger dead, yet remembers it as an exciting adventure: 'I had found a special place, and made a new friend, and lost my comic, and I was holding an old-fashioned silver sixpence tightly in my hand.' How much of the unpleasantness of his childhood has been excised by the benevolent Hempstock witches, however, remains a mystery. As Mrs Hempstock reminds the boy, 'You can't know everything.'

The Ocean at the End of the Lane blends memoir and fantasy, cosmic battles and quaint English domesticity. In its evocation of childhood, its playful approach to time and its stark contrast between good and bad magic, it recalls CS Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia (especially The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time series. One should not make the mistake of dismissing this as a mere children's book, though, for this is a story for anyone who has ever been a child. 'I liked myths,' the boy insists; 'They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were.'