After falling for Gaiman’s writing in the Sandman comics, I decided it was beyond time to try his fiction. One of his more recent books, The Ocean at the End of the Lane came highly recommended as an introduction to his writings. I cracked the spine, flipped past the copyrights, and was almost immediately hooked. The story is told by an older man (somewhere in his fifties or sixties I assume, though his age is never stated) who has returned to his childhood home for a funeral (presumable for his parents, though this too is only suggested). Gaiman leaves out these details because they are not important. What is important is this man’s journey back through his childhood to the events that transpired at the end of the lane—memories that had been obscured, “like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet.”
Gaiman opens his story with an epigraph from Maurice Sendak that immediately causes the audience to question the stability of memory, the nature of fear, and the transition from childhood innocence to the reality of adulthood. These become important motifs throughout the novel as the lines are blurred between reality and imagination. By the end of the prologue, in which the narrator begins to reminisce on his childhood home, readers get the tingling sensation of the fragile and fleeting becoming tangible, much like the reawakening of a sleeping limb.
As most children do, Gaiman immediately establishes an “Us vs Them” distinction between children and adults: children are afraid, adults are brave; children are creative, adults are boring; children are confused, while adults have everything figured out. But as the narrator looks back on his friend Lettie Hempstock, who has never been exactly what she seemed, and has been eleven for a very long time, he begins to realize that perhaps adults and children aren’t so very different. “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either,” she tells him. “The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
In fact, nothing in this novel is what it seems. Gaiman has penned a masterpiece of magical realism that exists at the crossroads of the mystical and the scientific, begging us to question the true nature of things. The morality of the characters is more flexible than “good” or “evil,” as we realize that some humans are more monstrous than the monsters themselves. He pushes us to question the bounds of the world within his story, one that is so similar to our own it is impossible not to extend the same skepticism to it. Once immersed in the story, it’s tempting to write off the story as a child’s overactive imagination—to indulge our need to rationalize the unexplainable. But we are constantly presented with comments from the narrator that prevent us from doing so; they act as a reminder that we are hearing about these events from an adult, not a child. Gaiman makes it impossible for us to make this easy assumption and forces us out of our comfort zones.