The statement “I had been driving towards a house that had not existed for decades” applies equally well to the new novel from acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman and the story behind it. A reminiscence of the good and bad of childhood as shaped by his own memories and recollections, while the ostensible readership may be young, there is nothing childish about it, and it is those who share ages with the author who may find the deepest connection within these pages.
Hailing from a family who are distant and with no friends to speak of, the unnamed narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells of an isolated farmhouse where growing up was brightened by stories and books, but life enters a new chapter with two unfortunate deaths. First is the kitten named Fluffy through an accident under the wheels of the taxi which brought the lodger, second is the lodger himself, his body discovered on the property of neighbouring Hempstock Farm where the past is washed away by the shallow waters of the duckpond which, we are reliably informed, is in fact an ocean.
In this book, adults and their grown up world can be strange and incomprehensible; a visit to a wax museum’s Chamber of Horrors offers not the wonderful scares of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster but wife killers and child murders who sold the bodies for anatomy experiments and were in turn killed by the state for their sins. When a piece of burnt toast symbolises the betrayals of childhood, the disappointment of the realisation that parents are fallible, why should it not be so when an old woman claims to remember not only how the moon was made but to have arranged it so that her preferred full moon is always visible through her window?
The quiet power of the book is that is that it exists in another time: the narrator’s family allow him to venture across fields and through meadows and to the neighbours house without question or concern, where he makes friends with Lettie, an older girl (all of eleven!) without the rudeness, antagonism or competitiveness that blights modern childhood where winning is everything. Lettie’s mother and grandmother, Mrs Hempstock and Old Mrs Hempstock, invite him into their home and offer him milk fresh from the cow and porridge with plum jam. This is a time of trust in children and in others.
Yet all is not happy in this world; danger lurks beyond the borders of Hempstock Farm, Lovecraftian horrors with “tearing beaks and talons… chitinous mandibles.” The matter-of-factness of the magic, the way it has always been here alongside the world as seen, the threat of birds and animals, the menace of the darkening sky as clouds loom overhead, the final confrontation presaged by the phrase “There was silence in the Sussex night,” all remind of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the landmark book which brought in the modern age of British children’s fantasy, whose 50th anniversary edition was prefaced by Gaiman himself.
Unlike adult novels, where authors can indulge whimsy or take diversions to their own interests and the reader is expected to be attentive regardless of how irrelevant the digression, Gaiman has not one wasted word in his compact yet flowing prose. The writing is tactile, a celebration of shepherd’s pie with the mash a crusty brown, the meat and vegetables beneath rich with gravy, apple pie with crushed nuts and sultanas and thick golden custard, the happy food of childhood, warm and comforting and full of memories.
Gaiman knows his readership, and not only does he provide the expected magic and danger, he celebrates stories and belief in the fantastic, recognising those who long for more than the mundane which can never fill or satisfy them. While adult life sometimes precludes that belief, the pages of this book are an open invitation to forget how to behave grown up.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is available now from Headline