“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

Book coverThis novel was voted as 2013’s “Book of the Year” in the National Book Awards, when the author said:

“I’ve never written a book before that was so close to my own heart – a story about memory and magic and the fear and danger of being a child.”

Wikipedia gives us a straightforward outline of the plot, which follows an unnamed man who returns to his hometown for a funeral and remembers events that began forty years earlier. These memories include friendly witches helping the young boy to battle against evil that seems to have come from another dimension, after attaching itself to him as a parasitic worm. When first met in its own world, the evil is described as a vague sail-like monster, yet back at home it insinuates itself into the boy’s home as an attractive childminder, seducing his farmer and keeping its real nature hidden to everyone except the narrator.

However, when we read this in May 2014, opinions were divided as to how to interpret the story. Some of us were happy to read it as a fantasy and to accept the alternate realities and monsters as just that. Others noted that the memories of the narrator were clearly flawed and that perhaps he had invented the whole story as a child’s way of coping with his father’s infedility.

Comments from different readers in our group included:

“I enjoyed the insights into childhood, especially in the earlier part – but as the fantasy kicked in it became progressively less enjoyable.”

“An easy read but disappointing.”

“Enjoyed it but least of all the Gaiman books I’ve read.”

“Poorly written and I would not again dip my toe in Mr Gaiman’s ocean. (And he needs a haircut).”

The book received an average score of 5.5 from 9 of our readers, with individual scores ranging from 4 to 8.

Some interesting trivia also drawn from Wikipedia:

  • Members of the Hempstock family have shown up in several of Gaiman’s other works.
  • The author began writing Ocean for his wife, originally only expecting it to stretch to a novella.
  • The car theft at the beginning of the novel mirrors a similar event in the author’s own life where his father’s car was stolen and the thief committed suicide in the vehicle.
  • A film of the book is anticipated, with Tom Hanks expected to produce it.

 

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3 Comments

  1. malcolmbbc

     /  July 16, 2014

    Margaret was on holiday but forwarded this note:

    “I did enjoy the book and I suppose I was looking for the things that meant something to me. For me it was a page turner but on seeing others responses I realise that when the “fantasy” ocean bit become very intense I just turned the pages without reading much. For myself the striking part of the book was the author’s ability to enter the child’s sense of the world. I could really relate to the perceptions of a young child trying to make something of events but really living mostly in their own imagination except where the real world invaded. (the dead cat, the car theft, the father’s infatuation with the hated nanny etc.) I can remember being in that “different world” but I had forgotten it – so I was really impressed that Gaiman unlocked the door. It is a while since I read it but I certainly engaged with the flow of it and was not judgemental so it must have been good.”

    Reply
  2. malcolmbbc

     /  July 15, 2014

    Barbara sent in these comments:

    “I did not enjoy it, though this may be because I have reservations about “fantasy” unless it develops from a credible context. I thought the central idea of the ocean/pond was a good, the childlike thinking was convincing, and there were some lovely descriptions when he was underwater.

    There did not seem to be much progress with the plot. It was difficult to place it in time, (presumably younger than me if he had to check with Google how many “Black Jacks” or “Fruit Salads” you could get for one penny, How could anyone forget?) Was this about memory, near death experiences, witchcraft, complementary parenting, or green politics, or just fantasy ?. If everyone thinks it is brilliant and I have missed out, then I might read it again…….., but perhaps not. .”

    Reply
  3. malcolmbbc

     /  July 15, 2014

    Bill couldn’t make the meeting but sent in his thoughts:

    “I loved getting into the story, but was appalled when things got weird. I have no appetite for the irrational, so I put my mind to work on the reality of the novel. Here was a narration by a seven-year-old child: hardly reliable; a child who loved to read, every chance he could, and whose imagination ran wild. You cannot trust the interpretation of a child’s memory.

    In ‘science fiction’ I look for allegory. In TOATEOTL there is the prosaic story of a man having an affair with his children’s nanny. The rest of the story is about childhood memories, and the way that a child interprets adult behaviour, and attempts to put it into some kind of context. Ursula Monkton had an affair with his dad; Lettie Hempstock, his childhood sweetheart, went to live in Australia. These are the facts and the rest is all imagination, interpretation and hyperbole.

    Having said all that, I really enjoyed this book. The descriptions of fields, buildings and weather put me right there, in the story. I thought that the novel had a wonderful feel and flow – a lovely texture to it. It is full of metaphor and allegory: about youth, learning and what is around us.”

    Reply

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