Diving deep into childhood
CHILDHOOD memories are odd things: episodes that shine vividly in our minds may in fact not have happened as we remember them at all, while other moments, long faded into obscurity, may have in fact had a significant impact on us.
It is with these delicate remembrances that Neil Gaiman weaves the fabric of his latest novel, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, a dark, melancholic and yet often surprisingly beautiful tale about the very different worlds we live in as adults and children.
A middle-aged man returns to the house he grew up in, and finds himself drawn to a farmhouse down the lane, a place he remembers only vaguely. He sits down on a bench by a duck pond at the farm, and the faint echoes of memories start to stir in him.
Memories of his lonely, bookish seven-year-old self, and of the girl – Lettie Hempstock – who used to live in the farmhouse with her mother and grandmother, and of her telling him the pond was actually an ocean. And along with these, recollections of a series of events that are simultaneously too horrifying to remember yet too magical to forget.
It may be a novel about childhood, but there is certainly nothing childish or playful about Ocean. Unlike the ribald humour of Gaiman’s last book for adults, Anansi Boys (2006), the magical absurdism of Stardust(1999), or the ironic wit of Neverwhere (1996), Ocean is actually more akin in tone to the introspectiveAmerican Gods (2001), also written for an adult audience.
It begins with a quote by children’s author 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.” This is precisely what the book is about, that unbridgeable distance between how children and the adults around them see the world.
Gaiman captures the sensations of childhood perfectly, intentionally employing tropes that are familiar to us from a variety of sources.
The protagonist’s feasts of fresh milk, honeycomb and porridge at the Hempstock farm are pure Enid Blyton, while his fantastical adventures with Lettie have shades of both Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are and Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. Other moments of him being trapped in his own room are straight out of slasher horror movies, while certain descriptions of some not-quite-human characters even bring to mind Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away.
While this is Gaiman’s first full-length novel since Anansi Boys in 2005, Ocean actually feels more like a novella, or perhaps even a fable: short, focused, and over too soon. And like all great stories, I wanted more; more of the delightful and mysterious Hempstocks, more of the shadowy world Gaiman gives us a glimpse into, and certainly, more of his lyrical, haunting prose.
The genius of the writing in Ocean is that Gaiman writes through a seven-year-old’s eyes, and yet never lets us forget the adult man recalling these memories. As the tale unfolds, child becomes man, but the man also becomes the child. Similarly, his memories feed his present, but at the same time, the present eats away at his memories.
But most of all, what sticks with you and awakens your own memories, are his descriptions of that utter loneliness that comes when you realise, as a child, that no adult is going to see beneath the veneer of reality into all the darkness and magic and horror that you know exists in the world. Balancing this out, however, is his development of the relationship between Lettie and the young narrator, a testament to the unquestioning trust and belief children are capable of.
And as you wade deeper and deeper into this mesmerising tale Gaiman has conceived, you can’t help but sink into your own feelings of nostalgia, of that time when the world was more than just one place, when a pond could also be an ocean.