Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

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“Do you really remember when the moon was made?” I asked. “I remember lots of things.”

This book is about memories. It is even introduced with a quotation form Maurice Sendak: “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”

Our narrator, returning (for a funeral) to the neighborhood of his childhood feels compelled to drive down to ‘the end of the lane.’ This is where the “Hempstock Farm” is located. It’s “the oldest farm thereabouts” and is even “listed in the Domesday Book,” that great 11th-Century survey commanded by William the Conqueror. The narrator only vaguely remembers how, as a seven year old, he was friends with 11-year old Lettie Hempstock, and that she had helped him through a time of troubles. His memory is incomplete, however (“suppressed” would be the better word) but, with his return to this pastoral setting, the whole memory of the traumatic childhood incident comes flooding back to him.

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What did the unnamed narrator of this novel know but not wholly remember? A lot of things that would scare adults, that’s for sure. He knows that the Hempstocks are much more that what they appear to be. He knows that his family’s new housekeeper, Ursula Monkton (and how great of a villain’s name is that?) is not who she appears to be either.

As the story of the childhood episode unfolds, Lettie’s family is slowly revealed to be in some way supernatural and a moment of carelessness on their part causes him to stumble into a encounter with another supernatural entity – this one malevolent. Lettie puts this creature to flight,but not before it gains a “foot”hold with the young boy when he forgets Lettie’s order to not let go of her hand during the encounter.

The boy’s peril increases at breakneck pace, as Ursula Monkton begins to take over his household and the reader is kept on edge as he waits for the Hempstocks to come to his rescue. They surely will, right?

I loved the book. At first I wondered if the narrator’s memory of the childhood event were the product of ex post facto imaginings, a seven year old’s attempt to deal with the trauma of being witness to the discovery of a suicide, the death of his pet cat, or unwittingly discovering the infidelity of his father. But the framing story of his returning to the neighborhood as an adult, and his “second” meeting with one of the Hempstocks, seemed to corroborate his memory. I also loved how well Gaiman told the story in the first-person voice – of a seven year old. Impressive.

His encounter with “Old Mrs. Hempstock” in the epilogue leads him to ask her (regarding his memory), “Is it true?” Her reply, “What you remembered? Probably. More or Less. Different people remember things differently,and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same.”

(below: I can neither confirm nor deny whether a pensieve from the Harry Potter movies was used in the crafting of this story)

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This book was just released last month and was my first venture reading Gaiman, who is wildly popular (1.8 million followers on Twitter!). I downloaded his novel, “American Gods,” a couple years ago but still haven’t gotten to it. If this short book was representative of his writing, I doubt I will be disappointed if I finally take the plunge and read that one next. What are your thought’s about Gaiman? Have you read any of his work, and if so, what did you think of him?

(below: author Neil Gaiman)

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13 Comments

  1. Ti said,

    July 16, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Okay, I have not read one of his books before but this one sounds so good!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 17, 2013 at 7:23 am

      Hi Ti,
      It would probably be a good one to start with, as it is very short and an easy read.
      -Jay

      Like

  2. Melisa said,

    July 16, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    I loved it too! A few weeks later and I’m still thinking about it.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 17, 2013 at 7:24 am

      Me too! Lots of memorable scenes and themes. I found it pretty hard to write about it without giving too much away (or sounding deliberately cryptic).
      -Jay

      Like

  3. Dale said,

    July 16, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    I read The Graveyard Book last year. It won the Newbery Medal in 2009. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was a kids book. I have thought about reading some of his adult works, but just haven’t gotten around to it. This sounds great!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 17, 2013 at 7:26 am

      Hi Dale,
      Knowing your preferences as I do, I’m certain you’d like it. I was very pleasantly surprised by this one. Hard to put down in the second half or ‘home stretch’ of the story.
      -Jay

      Like

  4. Nancy Cudis said,

    July 21, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    The first book I read by Gaiman was not very memorable. I could no longer remember the title but the genre is fantasy and there is a creation of a new alien world too big for me. Still I went to read his other works, The Graveyard Book and Stardust, both I enjoyed very much. Now on my nightstand is his Interworld. The book you’ve read is much talked about positively in several blogs I visisted so I think I’m going to check this out.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 22, 2013 at 11:57 am

      Good to hear from you, Nancy! I definitely onto read more by Gaiman, starting with the one I already own, American Gods.

      I’d also heard The Ocean at the End of the Lane getting rave reviews on other blogs I trust, and that was a big factor in my decision to read it.

      -Jay

      Like

  5. JD said,

    September 4, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Jay, nice review. Gaiman packs a lot of stuff into a very short book. That in and of itself is a great skill.

    – JD

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 6, 2013 at 12:20 pm

      Thanks, JD, and thanks for visiting! I have American Gods on deck as my likely next Gaiman read.
      -Jay

      Like

  6. Col Reads said,

    September 9, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    This is a great review — I hadn’t even thought of the pensieve likeness, but I bet my daughter the Pottermaven would have caught it immediately. I really suggest reading The Graveyard Book in addition to American Gods — it’s a really good, old fashioned ghost story!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      September 10, 2013 at 7:44 am

      Thanks, Col. I will definitely put The Graveyard Book on “the list” too. Thanks for the recommendation!

      -Jay

      Like


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