The last time I visited my childhood home for seven years- before my parents got separated- I was quite shocked to discover how small it was. I used to admire how well my mother kept our home years ago, not realising that at its exterior, it was nothing but a wooden shack- its facade, dwarfed by the two-storey concrete houses at each side.
We got by fine for a while, I guess. I’m not sure about the state of our finances either as we were able to afford enough for a small family of three: a television with cable network connection, a stereo (formerly known as karaoke), a maroon telephone, a cushy maroon sofa, a soft mattress, a stove, an unlimited water supply, and a tall shelf filled with my mother’s books and literature. Other than those mentioned, I found other things in our house insignificant.
As I stood in the centre of our former rickety dwelling as an adult, everything was so small that I could even touch the wooden beams attached horizontally below the ceiling. I felt like the giant Alice after she ate the cake that says “EAT ME” written on it in currants. I guess for a seven-year old child, that rickety shack is her kingdom.
I guess for a seven-year old child, that rickety shack is her kingdom.
The novel begins with our nameless protagonist returning to his childhood home in Sussex, England to attend a funeral. The deceased was never identified, but clues suggest it was the protagonist’s father.
He finds himself driving in a little country lane of his childhood, where he soon caught vague memories of his past decades ago. There he follows the road toward the Hempstock farm, to which a significant part of his childhood took place. He follows a trail to a duck pond near the Hempstock residence, whereupon everything from his fantastic past becomes all clear to him.
The story now jumps to the days when the man was only a bookish and lonely seven-year old boy, who witnessed the discovery of a suicide’s corpse; the man was a boarder in their home who drove off near the Hempstock farm to take away his life in the boy’s family car. The Hempstocks, who live nearby, take the boy in for a few hours and feed him. There, he strikes a friendly relationship with the eleven-year old Lettie Hempstock, her mother Ginnie and her grandmother Old Mrs. Hempstock- all belong to a seemingly odd family.
The duck pond is called, as Lettie insists, the ocean. For small kids, that really makes some sense. Anyone who has returned to a childhood home knows how small everything seems now, how enormous everything seemed then.
The immense struggle started when the boy accidentally released ancient evil entities in the process of banishing them. The most evil of those forces becomes the boy’s nanny named Ursula Monkton. The only way the boy could destroy the monster that is Ursula is to seek help from the powerful Hempstocks.
Neil Gaiman captured the wide-eyed views of every child at such young age. The fright, the feeling of helplessness, the naivety: all of which drew the boy into adventures beyond comprehension and real-world logic.
The out of this world occurrences are hauntingly familiar from our real-life childhood, at the time when our minds lived somewhere in Neverland rather than on Earth. Those were the years that our innocence was passive enough to question adult whims and decisions. We’re almost always unable to control the misery of being powerless, that even the sight of our fathers brandishing a belt terrified us.
It might make sense to think that the events and characters in fairy tales symbolise facets of real life. However, this isn’t always the case for everyone. These tales bear their own meanings that echo with universal experiences. The Ocean at the End of the Lane relates well with certain elements of childhood, especially for children who always get lost in books.
It’s easy to assume that the book is for kids, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is targeted toward the adult audience (YA fans will enjoy it, too). The book is Gaiman’s way for us, adults, to re-evaluate our past and make sense of things we couldn’t fathom when we’re still naive.
Growing up without a sibling to share the joys and sorrows of life with, I often lost myself in the books neatly arranged in the tall bookshelf of my humble childhood home. A long time ago, that bookshelf was so high I had to tiptoe to reach the paperback novels on top. Once upon a time, for a little while, all my fears, helplessness, and misery got lost somewhere we now know as the “imagination”.
As an adult, like the man in the book, I’m charged with a sense of self-knowledge that will carry me through the years. Like him, I was reminded that my life today was shaped by my childhood experiences. No matter how small things were in the past, there’s an infinite possibility to grow. Looking back to our erstwhile life, there will always be the realisation of how far and big we all have become.
“Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.”
Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Published: June 18, 2013
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy
Audience: Adult, Young Adults