I love how Neil Gaiman’s books find both magic and terror lurking in the most mundane places. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an introverted little boy finds a mystical world at a farmhouse just down a bumpy road from his house – a place of both wonder and fear. But more fabulous than the full moon that always shines on one side of the house to the little nameless boy who is the main character in the story is actually finding a friend, in the person of a strangely mature 11-year-old girl named Lettie Hempstock.
The little boy meets Lettie and the other Hempstock women when his family car is used by a tenant to commit suicide on their property. This sad act sets off a chain of events that puts the little boy, his family, Lettie Hempstock and perhaps the whole world in danger. But in the background of all the harrowing activity is the absolute calm of the Hempstock farm, where Lettie, her mother Ginnie, and grandmother Old Mrs. Hempstock live in absolute harmony with nature: where the fires are cozier, the kittens are cuddlier and the food tastes better than anyplace on earth. Which makes the juxtaposition of good and evil in this book particularly jarring.
This story certainly bears some resemblance to Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book -- but definitely at an adult level. No children’s book could deal so forthrightly with a father’s attempt to murder his own son – or that same father’s entanglement with an evil nanny. Still, Gaiman brings so much whimsy to the characters that you find yourself lulled into a false sense of security – and then startled back into remembering this is not a “warm and fuzzy” tale. For example, after one near death experience, the young boy’s mind turns to spotted dick, a favorite dessert:
I do not miss childhood, 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 things that made me happy. The custard was sweet and creamy in my mouth, the dark swollen currants in the spotted dick were tangy in the cake-thick chewy blandness of the pudding, and perhaps I was going to die that night and perhaps I would never go home again, but it was a good dinner, and I had faith in Lettie Hempstock. p. 206
This is a unique story, despite the fact that the Hempstock women are reminiscent of the Fates –- life forms so old and powerful that even the Greek gods could not understand or sway them. But the similarities ended for me there. I absolutely couldn’t put this book down. I imagine many people will have this one on their R.I.P. VIII lists this year, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. Thanks so much to Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting!
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book for review. I borrowed the e-book from my public library.