Neil Gaiman tells us what we’re all thinking: adults are scary.
Gaiman’s novel is a semi-autobiographical story about an unnamed adult who visits a farmhouse from his childhood after delivering a eulogy for his father. Memories flood the narrator, leading him to recall the fantastical events that defined his childhood. Besieged by an otherworldly monster that possessed his family, the narrator has no one to turn except for eccentric Hempstock family.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with the narrator describing a period of his childhood life when his parents moved him into his sister’s bedroom in order to take on tenants. His normal, comfortable world is shaken when an opal minor kills himself, an act that unknowingly allows a monster from another dimension to invade. The creature makes its existence known to those who want to be happy, but in odd, unexpected ways. For example, when the narrator thinks about money, he wakes from a vivid dream of someone forcing a coin down his throat only to pull that same coin from his mouth. The monster’s presence and ability to affect our world escalates after Lettie Hempstock, youngest of the Hempstock women, brings the narrator along as she tries to dispel the creature. The story kicks into high gear with the appearance of Ursula Monkton, a young, seductive woman who is hired by the narrator’s mother as a nanny. The two engage in a duel of wills that escalates into a life or death battle against pan-dimensional monsters. The worst creature of them all is the narrator’s possessed father, who becomes a dark shadow of his former self under Ursula’s influence.
What I really liked about Ocean was the story’s gentle supernaturalism. The final third of the book contains a great deal of fantastical elements, like monstrous birds that can chew up our dimension, but it never geels too over the top. In fact, take away the fantasy bits and there’s still a coming of age story to be found, one that has something to say about the relationship between children and adults. My favorite lines in the book is, “Adults follow paths. Children explore.” Truer words have never been written. Free from the shackles of responsibility, children have a much easier time getting drawn into their own worlds. As adults, we lose the freedom to do whatever we want and go wherever we want because of our personal and financial obligations. This causes friction with children because when we grow up, we lose their perspective. In the real world, it would be easy for the narrator’s parents to brush off concerns over Ursula as a result of an overactive imagination. We tend to forget or fail to realize that a babysitter violates the sanctity of the child’s world, one that is normally comprised of their mother, father, siblings and close friends. Ursula ended up being a real monster however the narrator’s fear would likely be the same if she were just a normal woman.
I liked The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It is a bittersweet story of growing up and the loss of childhood innocence at the hands of a crazy world that is more than ready to throw curve balls at us from every direction.