The Ocean at the end of the lane is many things – part fantasy; both heartwarming and, in parts very dark; part reflection on the wonder of childhood and the hazy memories adults have of those years; and part a look at what it is to be a child who feels feel distant from and misunderstood by their parents and the adult world.
A man (I’m not sure we even learn his name, actually, despite being the protagonist) visits his rural childhood home, which conjures up memories of a time when he was seven and entered into some surprising and terrifying adventures.
His parents had recruited a childminder, Ursula Monkton, who charmed everyone but the protagonist. It turns out her perfect body was a shell for a monster who wanted to devour him, and nobody but he could see her true nature. There is a shocking scene in which the boy’s Dad – who often shouts but is not normally murderous – tries to drown him whilst, it appears, under the thrall of Ursula.
He enlisted the help of the Hempstock family from the farm down the road, who it turns out are thousands of years old and have magical powers. Together they fought off the ‘hunger birds’, which wanted to kill the boy too. Gaiman has a brilliant concept here, with these birds who eat the very fabric of reality:
“Where it devoured the grass, nothing remained – a perfect nothing, only a colour that reminded me of grey, but a formless, pulsing grey… This was the void. Not blackness, not nothingness. This was what lay behind the thickly painted scrim of reality.”
One of these ‘vultures of the void’ as he calls them, kills Lettie Hempstock rather than the boy – or, not kills, but temporarily drains her of life and the she enters the ocean at the end of the lane to regenerate, which is where 40 years later he finds the Hempstocks, with Lettie still in repair.
It ends with an exchange in which Ginnie Hempstock says to him “Lettie did a very big thing for you. I think she mostly wants to find out what happened next, and whether it was worth the sacrifice.”
“Did I pass?” he aks
She replies: “You don’t pass or fail as a person, dear.”
It is these nuggets of brilliance combined with the story itself, which so subtly evokes the sense of being a child in adult world, of your imagination and inner life being beyond the grasp of your parents, that make this an incredible book.