“Words save our lives, sometimes.” – Neil Gaiman (in the acknowledgements)
“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” – Lettie Hempstock
These two excerpts from The Ocean at the End of the Lane perfectly encapsulate what I love about this book, and Neil Gaiman in general. Simple, evocative, sincere, and just a little bit poignant, Neil Gaiman knows how to paint such a vivid story with his words.
Ocean tells the story of an unnamed seven-year-old boy who is shy and bookish, and lives a normal life until the day he stumbles upon Lettie Hempstock and the Hempstock farm, where he finds a world beyond anything he’s ever known or imagined. This is one of Gaiman’s adult fairytales (my favorite kind of his style) and involves, as they usually do, an innocent child going up against evil forces that seem to be so much more powerful than the child himself.
This book is a short one (clocking in at 181 pages), but it packs so very much into those pages. This book really contains two stories: the fantastical one of the boy and Lettie fighting against a ghoulish presence, and our narrator stepping out into the world. The fairytale portion both encompasses and transcends the good vs. evil template; if they do not destroy the ghoul it will destroy them, but as Lettie points out, the ghoul isn’t really good or bad, it is just acting according to its nature.
The story of our narrator is so easy to relate to (especially for those of that were bookish and shy children) because it contains familiar themes that everyone goes through at some point: Tension with one’s parents and siblings, the realization that grown-ups don’t know everything (and along with that, the realization that your parents aren’t infallible), finding your way, standing your ground and fighting for what you believe in. The world is a messy place and we all have our own paths to finding ourselves, our own traumatic experiences that stay with us well into adulthood. This is where Gaiman is at his best, and I soaked up every word of it.
Ocean has a little bit of everything and comes together to create a touching and exhilarating tale of magic and finding your way in the world. Gaiman’s writing is captivating, and this book was a joy to read, I reveled in every page and at the end I only wished there were more.