Going back in the day, and never quite coming back
'...I'll let him do it to you every night until it bores me, and then I'll tell him not to bring you back, to simply push you under the water until you stop moving and until there's nothing but darkness and water in your lungs...' - the narrator's 'monster' nanny Ursala Monkton tells him.
This is the childhood of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The kind of childhood that has no one coming for your seventh birthday party and all the jellies and birthday hats lie next to the plates, the kind where you are too scared to sleep in complete darkness and you must fight with your sister to be able to keep the door of the bedroom open every alternate day. This is also the childhood of monsters that make worm holes into your heart and lots of books and an ocean.
Neil Gaiman opens his latest masterpiece with simple logic that is his trademark style - 'It was only a duckpond...Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean...her mother said that Lettie didn't remember properly, and anyway it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk.
‘Old Mrs Hempstock...said they were both wrong, and that place that had sunk wasn't the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country. She said the really old country had blown up.'
The suicide of an opal miner in the narrator's father's old Mini opens up a portal of sorts that starts with a sixpence in a dead fish's stomach. Soon what tumbles out from the end of a hazel wand and takes root in the arch of the narrator's foot is a parallel universe of monsters - fleas and the varmints.
The little boy of seven manages to pull out the worm from his foot but not all of it, a hole is made in his heart, the gateway for a monster to make her way into the world. The narrator cannot fight this, but the Hempstocks can. Lettie, Ginnie and Old Mrs Hempstock and the fight to clean the world begins ending in a tumultuous wave in Lettie's ocean.
Gaiman creates a world and an ocean at the end of the lane that is full of fairy circles, broken toys, books and very real fears. Is it possible to feel afraid in a world like this? While there are no dragons to fight, no ogres to slay and no damsels to rescue, the cold gnawing fear that runs like a tunnel right to your heart from your feet becomes very real. Fear in The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels cold, not deathly cold, but cold like darkness and near death, a sleep that would take decades to wake up from.
In the narrator Gaiman creates a boy full of questions and images, with a love for kittens and only one friend - Lettie Hempstock. But as men grow older they forget, the narrator forgets, like a neat piece of his night suit cut out the edges sown back in by Old Mrs Hempstock.
But he comes back, the return to Lettie's ocean is inevitable. 'You come back sometimes,' she said. 'You were here once when you were twenty-four, I remember...you came here before you left these parts; you were, what, in your thirties then? ' ' I don't remember.' 'It's easier that way.'
For eventually we all grow up and some of us grow new hearts.
Gaiman writes for the adult who might have lost his heart to the hunger birds and for children who want to know about little specks of grey nothingness (like static on TV when the connection goes off). He carves out images of specters that hide as pretty nannies and sting like cold strips of grey cloth that draw blood and float in air. Gaiman writes about the Hempstocks with a warm feeling of protection that feels like home to the lonely and scared seven year old.
It is the perfect world where reassurance in the face of fear comes from holding the hand of your only friend who is a whole head taller than you and a few years older and after the battle that takes away your heart and puts your protector to sleep, you are still hugged tight and sent back home. Like a make-believe adventure at the playground.
The book starts with the words of Maurice Sendak (American illustrator and children's book writer) - 'I remember by own childhood vividly...I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them.' While in the mind's eye, the varmints and the fleas look like illustrations form Sendak's book Where the Wild Things Are, the childhood both Gaiman and Sendak talk about lies sleeping in the mind of every lonely, imaginative adult.
Should you read the book? Well, it would be a big mistake if you don't.