The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Neil Gaiman’s accidental novel. Unplanned, it was originally to be a short story for his wife, Amanda, with, he says, the ‘’fantastic’’ that identifies much of his previous work dialled down and more of what she liked . . . ‘’me, honesty and feelings.’’
Within weeks it had morphed from short story through novelette to novella and finally, when he was transferring his hand-written manuscript to the computer, to fully-formed novel.
The book is seen through the memory of a middle-aged man, returning to his early family home for a funeral, drawn back to a world where ‘’memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me. Had you told me that I was seven again, I might have half believed you, for a moment.’’
That seven-year-old is the narrator who meets the three Hempstock women, Lettie, her mother and her grandmother, who live in the farm just down the lane.
‘’Outback there is a duck pond that Lettie says was an ocean which they’d come across from the old country. Her mother said that Lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway the old country had sunk. Old Mrs Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country. She said the really old country had blown up.’’
On the surface the book can be seen as a magical tale of children who come under attack from the inhabitants of another, co-existing, world, who have crossed through a cosmic fault-line. A tale of pitiless monsters and magic. The narrator is both a terrified child and one caught up in a glorious escapist adventure with some truly heart-stopping moments where you find you have been holding your breath.
Gaiman says that whilst the story wasn’t autobiographical, the ‘’viewpoint of the kid’’ was his and he has created, essentially, a book about the children we were.
Much has been made of the fact that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s first novel for adults for eight years. But at heart it’s a fable told with all the sex and violence that usually get sanitised from traditional fables when re-told for children. Maybe it is only through our grown-up recollection that we can understand the reality of our childhood.