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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