Tag Archives: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Book Review Saturday

Today’s book review takes as its subject a book I’ve mentioned before on the blog, and one I’d been looking forward to for ages before I managed to pick it up last weekend. It’s the latest work from one of my all-time favourite authors, a writer whose books for me are always an automatic buy; I knew I’d love it before I’d even introduced my eyes to the opening lines.

So, really, this review is more of a love letter to the author.

And that author is Neil Gaiman.

Image: thesundaytimes.co.uk

Image: thesundaytimes.co.uk

‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ tells us the story of a lost and bewildered man, returning to the landscape of his childhood. As he begins to immerse himself in the lost people and places of his past, he tells himself – and, of course, the reader – a story about a pivotal summer in his life, the summer he was seven years old, and what happened to him. As he narrates, bits and pieces of his memory float back up to his consciousness; it’s like he has suppressed his memories underneath a layer of ‘growing up and moving away and making a life for yourself,’ but that summer remains at his core, a slumbering seed waiting for the right time to bloom.

The narrator is not (as far as I remember) given a name – the book is, of course, written in the first person, so this isn’t a problem for the reader. As an adult, he seems quite jaded, a little disillusioned with life, a man who has put a failed marriage behind him and whose three adult children have grown and gone and left him to deal with the trauma of a family funeral alone. Attending this funeral is the reason he has returned to his childhood home, and he drives – at first randomly, and then with purpose – through the small village in which he grew up, and eventually out onto the narrow country roads that lead to his house, the house his parents built, and in which another family are now living. He drives further down the lane – deeper into his memory and himself – and winds up sitting beside the duckpond at the heart of Hempstock Farm, the pond which Lettie Hempstock, a girl he hasn’t thought about for forty years, once told him was the ocean.

The narrator’s seven-year-old self tells us about the summer his parents took in a lodger, a South African opal miner who eventually steals their family car and, having lost all his money through gambling, decides to take his own life in it. This tragic event – and it is tragic, and sad, and described by the seven-year-old narrator with all the wide-eyed clarity of a child – would be bad enough by itself, but it is only the beginning of a horrifying sequence of events which will drag in not only the child, but everyone who lives on the lane. The miner’s decision to commit suicide has unleashed a horrifying magical force, a dark and sinister spirit which uses his death as a portal into the human world, and who takes up residence in the fields around the narrator’s house. This spirit, in its twisted way, wants to ‘give people what they want’ – the opal miner died because he had no money, and so, one day, the narrator wakes up choking, his throat on fire with pain. With great effort, he manages to pull out whatever has made its way into his neck. It turns out to be a large silver coin – a silver shilling.

This macabre and twisted way of trying to ‘help’ while hurting is the signature of this malevolent spirit. Luckily for the narrator and his family, though, the family who live at the end of the lane – the Hempstock women of Hempstock farm – are far more than what they seem. Their duckpond is an ocean, the oldest of them remembers the Big Bang, they have powers beyond description and wisdom beyond measure and courage beyond understanding. Lettie, the youngest (though that’s a meaningless term, in relation to these characters), is eleven to the narrator’s seven, and she takes him with her as she goes forth to confront the spirit. Unfortunately, they underestimate it, and their attempts to vanquish it only allow it to create a doorway into the human world, which it can use at will – and the doorway is located through the body of our narrator, our seven-year-old innocent, whose life and family instantly begins to crumble. The Hempstock women must regroup and rethink their tactics in order to fight it, and fight it they do.

This book is an expertly handled mingling of fantastical elements and minutely observed realism. For me, even as a person who adores fantasy and mythology and folklore, and particularly when they’re in the hands of Neil Gaiman, and despite the fact that magic and folklore is at the heart of this story, I felt the book was strongest when rooted in the real. The descriptions of the narrator’s family, and the ways in which this spirit attempts to worm* its way into the fabric of their home life, are so effective because we’ve already seen the love between the members of the family, which makes the coldness and hatred that starts to grow once they’ve been infected by the spirit even starker and more upsetting. The most powerful scene in the book by a country mile is the one in which the narrator’s father, overtaken by the spirit’s power, very nearly takes his son’s life – it chilled me to the marrow. It’s an unforgettable piece of writing.

Writing fantasy is no challenge to Neil Gaiman. The spirit, its manifestations, the horrifying ‘hunger birds’ who must be summoned in order to make an attempt to destroy it, the powers at the heart of the Hempstock family and the thrilling mystery that binds them together, as well as the sacrifices each member of the Hempstock family makes in order to ensure the survival of everyone else on the lane, are all marvellous. But, I can’t help thinking that Neil Gaiman can create this type of thing effortlessly – this sort of writing, this sort of thinking, is not difficult for him. It’s the touches of realism – the marital difficulties between the narrator’s parents, the relationship between him and his sister, the loneliness he feels when nobody turns up to his seventh birthday party – which elevate this book into a higher form of art.

I devoured ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane.’ I loved every word. If you enjoy excellent writing, wonderful storytelling, superb narrative framing, and a touch of scary magic topped with love, sacrifice and devotion, then this is the book for you.

Happy weekend, everyone. Read well, read often, read wisely…

*If you’ve read the book, please forgive the pun!

Reading vs Writing

And here we are, washed up on the shores of Thursday. How are you all?

I haven’t been doing a lot of writing this week, because life has managed to get in the way a lot over the past few days. It has a nasty habit of doing that just when you feel deadlines approaching and commitments (even if they’re only ones you’ve made to yourself!) piling up all around you. But, hopefully, from today until Saturday at least I’ll have time to get myself back on track and plough through some of the story ideas I’ve been working on; I’ll get them drafted and ready to sit, percolating, for a few days, all going well. I have competition deadlines coming up in June, July and August, and I need to have polished, professional work ready to submit.

Hang on, will you, just a second, while I breathe into this paper bag.

I can do this... I can do this! Image: babyboomeradviserclub.com

I can do this… I can do this!
Image: babyboomeradviserclub.com

Okay. I’m good to go.

This deadline-fear is one of the reasons I go through periodic bouts of panicky palpitations and sleepless nights and sweaty palms – it’s necessary to plan ahead like this in terms of project management and upcoming commitments, but taking the long view on things sure does make life seem frightening, and full, and extremely stressful. Taking things one at a time has been my lifelong mantra, but in this ol’ writing game, you don’t always have that luxury. Multi-tasking has become my middle name.

I should spare a thought at this point, actually, for the hundreds of thousands of kids in Ireland who are sitting their major summer examinations right now. They began yesterday – just, of course, in time for the sun to finally emerge out of its hiding place and start drying out this sodden little country – and I remember all too well that horrible pressure the kids are under. I wouldn’t go through it all again for a king’s ransom. In a way, though, going through an examination process is excellent preparation for life, don’t you think? Kids: I hate to say this, but it doesn’t get any better.

No. That’s a joke, of course. It gets loads better. You still have to cope with pressure, deadlines and stress, but you get to be old, creaky and scatter-brained at the same time, which makes it more fun, particularly for those around you.

Despite the fact that I have excellent deadline-juggling training, there is one aspect of it at which I really am not good; no, not good at all. That thing is: trying to fit my reading deadlines around my writing ones. I have no fewer than three books on the go at the moment – not an unusual thing for me, I have to admit – but there’s also the fact that yesterday, on a browse through my *stealth boast alert* extensive book collection, I realised that my To Be Read pile had grown to heights unheard of since my long-ago and far-away teens. I have so many books I want to read that I’ll have to take a week off just to get started on them. Reading, of course, is a vital part of writing, and so needs to be somehow factored into everything else; each book to be read is another small deadline, another commitment to meet. Luckily, of course, these are probably the only enjoyable deadlines in the world, and so it’s almost a good thing that I have so many of ’em piling up. At least, I tell myself this to make myself feel better about it.

Also, I’m struggling to ignore the fact that Neil Gaiman has a new book out in a few weeks.

Image: transparentwithmyself.wordpress.com

Image: transparentwithmyself.wordpress.com

If I start letting myself think about this for too long, then all my other deadline-awareness flies out the window. Gaiman trumps everything in the great card game of life, of course. I have a feeling that all tools will have to be downed the second ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ comes out, because if I know it exists somewhere in the world, and I haven’t got my hands on it, then I will know no peace until it’s safely read and put on my shelf to admire along with all my other Neil Gaiman books.

Yes. I am an addict. I know.*

My main problem, as you’ll have worked out by now, is that I’m an addict to both reading and writing, and they’ve never come head-to-head before in quite such a way as this. Somehow, though, I’m sure I’ll struggle through. I suppose, really, it’s only right and fair to prioritise the writing deadlines, since they’re imposed by someone else (and are, let’s face it, a little bit more important), but I reckon I’ll pull a few all-nighters and meet most of my reading deadlines, too.

Phew. It’s a hard life.

Happy Thursday to you all. I hope, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, that you’re happy and well and have plenty to read. If you’re stuck for a book, let me know – maybe we can work something out!

*If my husband is reading this, I hope the fact that I’m about to wish him a happy birthday in public will make up for this blatant admission that I’ll be adding another tome to our Neil Gaiman shelf in a little while. Happy Birthday to the best and most understanding and loveliest husband in the world!