Reviewed by Jodie Robson
I was not happy as a child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.
It’s no secret that I adore Neil Gaiman. I love his writing, and the way he reads his own work. I love that, at a book signing, when I jokingly asked him if my 10th anniversary edition of American Gods was guaranteed not to contain the typo that’s in the earlier edition, he promptly started to search for the right paragraph to check, while a long snaking line of people waited patiently behind me. So a new Neil Gaiman novel was always going to be a treat for me – in fact, I bought tickets to go and hear him read from it, and then instead had to go and look after my parents, so I missed it. But my sons went, and my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is signed by Gaiman, and has a little hand-drawn ghost on the title page.
If you’ve read any of Gaiman’s short stories, you’ll know that they quite often seem to be autobiographical: there is someone in them who seems to be recognisably him, and occasionally, his friends turn up too. In those stories he has a very distinctive voice, and it’s very easy to hear him reading them in your head. It works here, too, because this is a book that grew out of Gaiman trying to tell his wife something about his childhood:
what I had in mind when I wanted to write the short story was something that told her what I was like when I was seven, what it was like to look at the world through my eyes. And also what the landscape that I grew up in was like because that isn’t really there any more… So I began describing this thing, using elements of fantasy I had when I was a small kid, using an anecdote that I heard about when I was in my forties, that I discovered that we had a lodger who killed himself using our car at the end of our lane… I thought, well, what would have happened if I’d have been there, what would have happened if it had had strange reverberations, and created a story out of that. (Neil Gaiman, BBC interview, June 2013)
And so that’s how The Ocean at the End of the Lane starts, with the new lodger, an opal miner, arriving at the home of the un-named seven-year-old narrator. Although the narrator is very much a loner – no-one has come to his birthday party, though he doesn’t mind very much because he’s looking forward to his new boxed set of Narnia books – and comfortable with his own company, things start to go seriously downhill for him from here. Soon after he finds the lodger dead a new au-pair arrives, a very frightening and vindictive young woman who seems determined to make his life a misery and turn his parents against him, and who may be something old and unimaginably evil. His allies are the Hempstocks, Lottie and her mother and grandmother, who welcome him to their farm, befriend him, and show him the Ocean.
Gaiman’s fictionalised memories of childhood resonate with many of his readers, those who recall the uncertainties, the sense of alienation from adults, sometimes the sheer misery of a time when all the decisions seem to lie in someone else’s hands. All of his books contemplate the darker side of life – some of his short stories too much so for me, although even then I can admire the evident craft, to the extent that, as soon as I start to discuss them, I convince myself that, despite my discomfort, they are excellent pieces of work. At no time is Gaiman much in need of a pedigree, being more famous than most of the authors he owes a debt to (he has an enormous following for his graphic novels), but the influence of Diana Wynne Jones and Alan Garner shows, and it seems to me that A.S. Byatt’s recent Ragnarok has much in common with this book, in its mythologising of the author’s own childhood. Some reviewers have commented that the “real-world” events are the most frightening in Ocean…, which led me to wonder if this might be a difference for adult, as opposed to younger readers: might children be more receptive to the “fantastical” elements, while adults know that reality is quite scary enough? Thinking back over a number of books, the scenes that stick in my mind most are those where the fantasy elements intrude on the everyday world: I’m still haunted by the scene in Garner’s Elidor where the electrical items in the family home start to run, and continue to do so even when the power is disconnected. The image of mixers and shavers running all night really sets my teeth on edge. There are similar moments here, although Gaiman’s writing is never as abrasive as Garner’s can be.
I don’t think that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is quite as beguiling and timeless as The Graveyard Book, but then, I don’t think it’s really a children’s book, although many people seem to have assumed that, because it’s got a seven-year-old narrator, it must be. Like Ragnarok, it’s a book about being a child, which is not the same thing. That said, I would happily give it to an older child to read, which is not something I’d do with any of the collections of short stories. As for me, I’ve already read it twice, and know that I’ll be re-visiting it many times during years to come. Timeless enough.
Jodie Robson blogs at Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf.
Neil Gaiman, The Ocean At the End of the Lane (Headline, 2014), 272pp., paperback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)