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Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane


A lane through dark attics
ARKESH AJAY | New Delhi, September 12, 2013 15:33
Tags : The Ocean at the End of the Lane | Neil Gaiman |

Neil Gaiman is an exceptional writer. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an illustration of this. As he has achieved many times before, the author manages to create an intriguing world of fantasy, where strange and horrible things happen, discernible only to our seven-year old unnamed protagonist (or as he remembers it today, forty or so years later after he turned seven). A world he cannot make the adults around him understand. A world the child in you will immediately relate to. “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” – Gaiman quotes in the book’s opening epigraph. And memories of monsters in cupboards, and ghosts looking in from the window rush to your mind. Our childhoods are lived in the reality of our imagination- full with strange creatures and our own supposed heroics, much like the books our protagonist here seeks recourse in when chased by bullies at school. Gaiman’s gift is that he can make you drown yet again in your childhood’s fevers, as you take a dip in the world he creates.

Our boy lives in an old house with his parents and sister. When his parents rent out his bedroom to an opal miner, who kills himself in their family car, things begin to take a murky turn. However, this very incident introduces us, and the boy to the Hempstocks- three women living in a house at the end of the lane. The youngest is a ‘seemingly’ eleven year old girl, Lettie, who owns what looks like a duckpond, but insists is an ocean. She befriends our narrator, and thus begins an adventure which only keeps getting stranger as it goes on. In this duckpond they find a fish dead because of a Victorian sixpence it seems to have swallowed. This leads them to an encounter with the forces that lurk around our calm world, and who will soon prove this world to be nothing but a “thinly painted scrim of reality”.

What are these forces, and what is it that they want? And why do they target our boy specifically, when he seems to be no one’s hero – bullied at school and at home, buried in books, and without friends. And why can he see through these veils and curtains, while others, including the adults around him, just cannot look beyond gratifying their material impetuses. But beyond all of this is built the question – who are the Hempstock women, and what do they know.

Questions and intrigues abound. But what holds us through this book, and covers all its lacunae (of which there are a few), is our love for the boy. And this is Gaiman’s biggest achievement in this book. With extreme economy, he manages to throw at us a character who will remain in our heads for quite a while after the book is done with. An unremarkable boy on the face of it, but such depths appear the moment you drill even an inch beneath. And as you read the novel, you will see this happening literally!

Gaiman is a master of details. He takes genuine joy in making references to literary predecessors, and masterpieces. In this book with us, Lewis Carroll is referenced on occasions more than one. There is an element of Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole in Ocean as well, and the author deftly uses the references to enrich his work.

However, this novel is certainly not Gaiman’s best work. And there is an irony in why. The book is held back by one of its strengths – the Hempstock women are so wonderfully written, that as much as they comfort our protagonist, they prevent us from feeling genuine fear. When the demons are on to us, we cower, and we blink, but we never feel defeated, for we know that eventually one of the Hempstocks would be around, and would come good. Probably, if the menaces were as competent as these women, this novel would have matched Coraline.

But let this not dissuade you from this book. Gaiman is on to a journey that runs through many a long forgotten childhood secrets. He digs into dreams, looks into shapes in the trees outside the window, and ducks under beds to face ghosts. He is a lyricist, a poet of the feverish landscapes of childhood nightmares. He plays with what was real then, and what remains real when you look back at those nightmares once you grow up. In what lies between these two, he places this novel. And through it all, this book remains a gripping story of a boy lost in the world of adults, till he finds a friend who takes him to visit an ocean.

Author: Neil Gaiman

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-1-47220-032-7

Pages: 256

Price: Rs. 399

Publisher: Hachette

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017