I had the perfect yard growing up. There was a huge hill in the back, perfect for sledding, and at the very bottom, a creek that teemed with frogs in the spring and summer. There was a large, old oak tree that, for what ever reason, grew out of a hole in the ground. There was a birge above the creek, with a swamp on the far side, and the trail of the birge wound through woods with perfect climbing trees, and dense thickets with openings just large enough for an eight year old to crawl into. I was so certain that one day, if I ever managed to travel all the way through the thicket, I would come out on the other end to a magical world with fairies and dragons.
We moved from that house when I was ten or so, but I went back to visit once, as a teenager. The amazingly steep hill seemed gently sloping, our monstrous swimming pool couldn’t have been more than eight feet across, and my magical thicket was sparse and shallow. I was disappointed, first at how different everything was than how I remembered, and then at myself for having completely lost that sense of magic that existed when I was a child.
Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” reminded me of that vast disappointment, though the novel is less about the magic of childhood, and more about the terror. It’s a hard book to grapple with: at once, it’s a fantastical horror story, in the veins of Stephen King at his best. At the same time, it’s a novel about perception, and grappling with reality. I’m not sure which Gaiman meant it to be — I’m not certain at all whether he realizes the way that the fantastic elements in the story mirror the realistic growing-up of the narrator — but it reads as a beautiful twist on perception.
The back cover reads: A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in it long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t though of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (A pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse where she once lived, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
The novel appears to revolve around four characters: our narrator, who to my knowledge is never named; and the three women who live next door: Lettie, the young girl; her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, and Old Mrs. Hemstock, the grandmother. These three characters mirror the mythic Fates: the Crone, who spends her time in the novel snipping at threads; the Maid, who takes our character by the hand and introduces him to a new world, and poor Ginnie, lost in the middle, measuring out threads.
They are also the only characters to received names. Our narrator is “the boy” and his family is composed of “his mother,” “his father,” and “his sister” — a near-perfect amalgration of an American family. There’s also “the opal miner” who plays a part. Only these three women receive names — and Ursula Monkton, the strange witch-like character that the narrator carries home with him one day.
The novel is bookended by the “boy” traveling to a funeral as a middle-aged man. Like the characters in the book, we never know who died, but his life is very average. His children are grown, he’s all right but not thriving, he remembers his friend Lettie who went to Australia, and he views the pond as just that — a small pond in a backyard. The heart of the book, however, travels back to when he was seven.
There are two ways to read the bulk of the novel. First, there’s the straightforward, if fantastic way to read it — a young boy’s adventure, a new version of “A Wrinkle In Time” complete with witches and tears in teh space time continuum, with beasts that retreat when the light in called out. But there’s a second way to view it, as well, and that’s as an abstraction — a fantasy created by a young boy who doesn’t know how to deal with the changes in his life.
It’s a book, at it’s heart, about death. The funeral is the clearest example, but even beyond that. At the beginning of the novel, the boy’s kitten is run over. Traumatic in itself, but the boy never sees the mangled body. Instead, the first death that he sees is the opal miner, who committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide in the family’s car. The boy sees that death — sees the strange hue that the miner’s face takes on, the waxy sheen of death. It’s at this point that we veer sharply into the fantastical — perhaps as the boy tries to deal with his kitten’s death, the miner’s death, and eventually the death of his friend next door.
According to the fantastic story, Lettie “dies” while saving the boy — but she’s then taken to the pond. Isn’t it just as likely that she drowns, one day — and all his stories are to make sense of that, in his seven year old brain, with the additional wealth of stories that he’s gained from reading books? (And here it must be noted that the boy’s favorite birthday present is the series of “Narnia” books — both one of the greatest children’s fantasy series, and clear allegory) Or perhaps Lettie is an imaginary friend, created by a friendless boy trying to make sense of what he’s seen . Or perhaps she is real, as are all of the stories and adventures.
There’s the point when our narrator sees his father having relations with the horrible Ursula Monkton. Our unreliable narrator tells us that at seven he didn’t understand what he was seeing — but later on, understands that Ursula was perhaps sent away because she was having an affair with his father. It is only after seeing his father like this that home becomes unbearable — that his father begins acting heinously.
That kitten, who died at the beginning? Well, the boy finds another kitten, almost identical to it. He takes it home, and it sleeps in bed with him, and yet nobody, not even the sister that he shares a room with, ever seem to notice that kitten.
And then there’s the drowning, a recurrent theme. First there’s the miner, drowning in air. Then, the boy is nearly drowned by his father. Later, it is by drowning that he is saved. And then Lettie leaves him, also by drowning. Is it possible that this was the traumatic event that triggered everything? That one day the boy went swimming, and Lettie tried to help him, and died doing so?
I don’t think there’s an answer. I don’t think that Neil Gaiman meant to write a story about a traumatized boy who escapes into his own mind to deal with the things that he’s seen or experienced. I think at the base it’s about those feelings — the feeling of terror from being young, and the belief that someone older will fix everything, will have the answers. The belief of children that something does lurk in the dark, even if you can’t see it. And then that niggling feeling as an adult, when revisiting childhood memories. On the one hand, it seems ridiculous that I ever thought that thicket was magical. And on the other hand — if I squint hard — if I lower myself to the height of a small child — isn’t there still that possibility? The same for the narrator here. Isn’t it possible that the pond is truly an ocean? At the end, the narrator walks away, and the reader alone is left questioning. What is real, and what is fantasy? But what it really boils down to is, through whose lens are we viewing the events in the story: a child’s, or an adult’s?