I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by the ever-beloved Neil Gaiman during the 24 Hour Readathon and had my doubts. I read Stardust years ago and couldn't understand what the fuss was about, thinking it poorly written, ill-constructed, and uninspired. I gave away my copy of Neverwhere after reading the first few pages and not wanting to bother going further, and Sandman Volume I has been on the shelf for years. Honestly, I figured Gaiman's ouevre was one of those things hyped to the point of over-expectation for me and our chance had passed. (It's like trying to get someone who didn't grow up with English-overdubbed Swedish Pippi Longstocking movies to enjoy them now; it's just too late. You'll never understand the magic. Let's move on.) So I was resigned to not understand other people's adoration of his work. And then The Ocean at the End of the Lane happened.
I've been mulling this read over for about two weeks now, somersaulting all the GODDAMN FEELS I've got about it. Ugh. It hit me in a tender spot, and I can certainly chock this up to the sleep deprivation from the Readathon, or maybe, perhaps, dear old Neil and I have hit our stride after all these years.
Ocean... is part fairy tale, part horror story, and a hell of a coming-of-age journey intertwined with the wistfulness of an adult reflecting on the wonder and terror of childhood. We find our protagonist returned to his home town for a funeral, though who has passed away we never learn. He steps away from the chaos and bustle of the day to visit where his childhood home stood and finds himself recalling the year that he was seven and a remarkable young girl he knew and has seemed to forgotten: Lettie Hempstock. We travel with him into his memories and the unbelievable events that took place that year...
What stands out most to me about this novel is how perfectly Gaiman captures the confusion of childhood, of being at that challenging age of feeling your way intuitively through situations without yet having the experience or intellect to fully comprehend what is happening, i.e. "I know this makes me feel icky inside but I don't know why." So often as adults we long to go back to those carefree younger days and we muse that youth-is-wasted-on-the-young, but we just as often forget how hard it was, too. Even the best of childhoods are smattered with moments of loneliness, shame, fear, terrible fear, and perhaps even worst of all, not being taken seriously as a person.
This also seems to be a novel about truth and lies; both the elusiveness of truth and the lies we choose to accept, and how the two are at times inextricably intertwined:
"At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. 'Yum!' he'd say, and 'Charcoal! Good for you!' and 'Burnt toast! My favorite!' and he'd eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand."
This becomes even more evident and complex as the protagonist begins to remember Lettie, her mother and grandmother, and the pond at the back of their farm she always claimed was an ocean. By the end of the novel, and in the days that have passed since finishing it, I can't help but think about those more elusive memories from our childhoods. Perhaps they lightly linger at the edges of our memory or are altogether lost in the abyss of the past, and yet, still, they shape us into who we are even without our knowing.
"I wondered, as I wondered so often when I was that age, who I was, and what exactly was looking at the face in the mirror. If the face I was looking at wasn't me, and I knew it wasn't, because I would still be me whatever happened to my face, then what was me? And what was watching?"
The older I get, the more secure I am with myself. Years of trial and error have helped with this. But there are still moments, though fleeting, where this image deconstructs. If only in those moments I had my own lane, my own pond, and my own Lettie Hempstock to remember and temporarily guide me back to me.