The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is 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 thought 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, 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.
This book was set up to fail in my eyes. My expectations were set way too high. Gaiman has been recommended to me by bloggers I respect, by strangers on the internet, by book store staff. I read early reviews that proclaimed this the best book that every booked, and I believed them. There was no way the experience of reading these 180 pages could live up to the hype. Especially once I realized that I read a book earlier this year that does everything this book tries to do, only better.
The plot weaves together fairytale, myth, and memory. The unnamed protagonist returns to his childhood home and remembers a number of supernatural occurrences. I am not sure whether the memories are repressed, fabricated or exaggerated. Maybe that was on purpose, maybe not, but I finished the book not really “getting” it, certainly not getting it in the way that other readers got it – no life changing experience, no profound feelings.
The female characters rubbed me the wrong way, too. We’ve got the bad ones: absentee working mother, evil seductress nanny; and the good ones, the magical ladies at the end of the lane, who act as substitute mothers, with much laundry-doing and baking (and monster fighting too, to be fair.) This working mom doesn’t appreciate the implication. I didn’t get a sense of why any of these women act the way they do, either. Why is mom not around? Why is the nanny/monster so evil? Why are the women the protectors of the little boy, and who else do they protect? Where do their powers come from? I think the three women might represent the Fates… or something? It was all a bit muddled and in 180 pages, there’s not much room to clarify.
I’ll try some more Gaiman. I have a feeling this wasn’t the right place to start. For my money, if you want to read a short, lyrical story about memory and childhood and magic, read The Cat’s Table. That one’s life changing. This one? There was no need for me to buy this in hardcover, apart from the beautiful cover art. Borrow it from the library.