Neil Gaiman is one of the most interesting storytellers of our time. From his award winning Sandman comic book series to his award winning novels like American Gods he has shown an amazing ability to look beneath the surface and give us a dream like experience of reality. His newest book The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no different. It is often hard to tell what is real and what is a dream. Or is it all a dream?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, at one level, the story of the narrator as a seven year old boy. The novel begins as the narrator is taking a drive down memory lane after a funeral. He drives past his childhood home and then finds himself going to the home of a childhood friend. He goes around to the back and sits down. As he sits he begins to remember the events that took place when he was seven. The seven year old boy is very familiar to me. At one level he is a reconstruction of Neil Gaiman as a child. I see myself in the boy as well. I too found my friends in books and preferred their company to that of other children. Like the narrator and the author some of the first books I remember are the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis.
The world of this seven year old is turned upside down when the man who is renting a room in their house commits suicide. This suicide wakes up something primordial. At the scene of the suicide the narrator meets Lettie Hempstock. At first Lettie seems to be nothing more than an eleven year old girl living with her mother and grandmother. These three women are far from normal. They are something larger and more powerful. By accident the narrator lets a great evil through into our world. Now, with the help of the Hempstock women he has to try and contain this evil and send it back where it came from.
This is more than just a story of childhood fantasy. It is the story of good against evil. Of powers beyond our control invading our world and trying to turn it upside down. It is the outside world trying to rob the innocence of children. It is the story of losing something, of something being taken as we grow older. Actually it is a story of childhood fantasy. It’s not the awakening to evil, it is the realization of good. Gaiman lists G. K. Chesterton as one of his childhood influences. Perhaps this quote from Chesterton’s essay “Red Angel” would help illuminate this book:
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
This is an amazing book. I am not sure that it would be appropriate for small children. I say I am not sure, not because it is frightening. I think that this book is more than that. I think that this book is for those who need to find the belief in something bigger than themselves.