Fiction

Remembering childhood and a family’s secrets

 

Neil Gaiman writes a fantasy for adults, set in an English countryside.

Eight years have passed since Neil Gaiman published Anansi Boys, his most recent adult novel, and now his new story marks the return of one of the fantastic mythmakers of our time. This is a slim work, best read on a rainy day or a sultry summer night to savor its wonder and nostalgia.

Lurking beneath the story of a frightened boy in supernatural peril is the even more frightening tale of the prospect of middle age. The narrator, in his late 40s and beset by disappointments, returns to his childhood village in Sussex to attend a funeral. There, he is drawn back to search the English countryside, now altered by the sprawl of housing estates.

All that remains at the end of a windy lane is the bucolic Hempstock farm, which has been there for centuries. An older woman he vaguely recalls welcomes him and invites him to sit a spell at a little pond on the property. His memory takes him back to the year when he turned 7 and was befriended by the strange, mysterious 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, who called the duck pond her ocean.

The man tries to sort through his memories. He was a bookish boy, fond of myths, children’s adventure stories and Gilbert and Sullivan songs. He had no friends. Into this bleak existence arrived the fabulous Lettie, her mother and her grandmother, who reveal that they have been on the farm for at least a millennium. The Hempstocks are wonderfully drawn characters, earthy, homespun and fiercely protective of their new little friend, particularly when trouble arrives.

And what trouble it is. A veil between the worlds is rent, and out pop some of the most vivid monsters in the Gaiman canon, including a seductress who gives this novel its mildly “adult” flavor, footworms (as bad as they sound), and amorphous creatures bigger than houses and full of menace.

Gaiman is a magpie, a maker of collages, creating something new and original out of the bits and pieces of his wide reading of myth and folklore. What a weird world he’s made, as weirdly compelling as the parallel worlds in his widely popular novel Coraline. The metaphysics of the Hempstock farm and the various monsters that threaten Lettie and the boy are neatly juxtaposed against the claims of the adult narrator. He is uncertain as to what really happened and what it all really means, just as we are, but there is no question about what is at play.

This is a novel of nostos — that ineffable longing for home, for the sensations and feelings of childhood, when the world was frightening and magical all at once, when anything and everything were possible. “I do not miss childhood,” the narrator says, “but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a small thing with much joy and heartache, sacrifice and friendship, beautifully crafted and as lonesome as the ocean.

Keith Donahue reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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