The devil is in the details

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane begins with an epigraph by Maurice Sendak, who says, “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.”

Neil Gaiman

Sendak would know. And so does Gaiman. His new book, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, is terrifying and doleful at the same time. It begins with the narrator, now in his 40s, who is in town to attend a funeral. Later, he takes a short drive down Sussex’s roads. Memories tumble over one another and he finds himself heading towards a home that he knows does not exist. 

The narrator (whose name is not revealed in the book) lived there between the ages of five and 12. After seeing a new house in its place, he drives down a little country lane which he knows only too well. 

It is the Hempstocks’ farmhouse, and once housed Ginnie Hempstock and her daughter, Lettie, who believed her duckpond was an ocean. Lettie’s grandmother, Old Mrs Hempstock, remembered the
Big Bang.

It all comes back to the protagonist when he sees the duckpond -- no, Lettie’s ocean. And thus begins the tale of his difficult, dark seventh year.

Here, the narrator takes us back to his childhood and the worst imaginable thing that could happen to a child (the narrator)on his seventh birthday -- no one turns up for it. Jellies and trifles lay uneaten, games unplayed, party hats untouched and a birthday cake -- in shape of a book, a voracious reader that the boy is -- lies unconsumed.

One day, the boy returns home to find a cardboard box and a South African opal miner in his living room. The cardboard box contains remnants of the boy’s beloved black kitten and the miner cheerfully announces that he ran over it. Soon, the boy and his father inadvertently discover the opal miner’s suicide (by monoxide poisoning) in their own car.

This is where the bizarre and the hyperrealistic enters. The boy meets Lettie and her family for the first time. Lettie takes the boy to show him her farm, where they find a fish choking on a sixpence. Later that night, the boy wakes up choking on a sixpence, too, and knows the answers lie with the Hempstock women.

Old Mrs Hempstock tells him that the ‘malevolence’ has been unleashed. Lettie takes the boy into the fields and they meet the monster, “some kind of tent, as high as a country church, made of grey and pink canvas that flapped in the gusts of storm wind… a lopsided canvas structure aged by weather and ripped by time”. The boy makes the mistake of letting go of Lettie’s hand, and the monster lodges itself as a worm in his foot. It soon takes the shape of the eerily beautiful and ruthless nanny, Ursula Monkton. Monkton arrives at the boy’s home as a boarder in a grey and pink dress that flaps, too.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a book for adults, but it is Gaiman’s writing about children and childhood that actually stands out. Take, for instance, his descriptions of the friendless boy, his doomed seventh birthday and the jumble of his feelings after the death of his kitten (“I missed Fluffy... but I dared not grumble to my parents about it. They would have been baffled at my upset: after all, if my kitten had been killed, it had also been replaced. The damage had been made up.”).

Gaiman replicates childhood as the vulnerable world it is. For the father, the dead opal miner is, well, a dead opal miner. But for the boy, he is a waxwork, “ slicked back and artificially shiny. Its eyes were staring. Its lips were bluish, but its skin was very red. It looked like a parody of health.” The boy’s world is made up of poems from Alice In Wonderland, Narnia’s exploits and some small, simple facts (“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find spaces between fences. I was a child, and I knew a dozen ways of getting out of our property that would not involve walking down our drive.”).

Gaiman is loved for his fantasy, but in The Ocean..., the most chilling parts are those that contain no strand of exaggerated reality.

Take for instance, the bit about the boy’s father plunging him in the bathtub. There are monsters and malevolence at play here, too, but not of the fantastic kind. What inspires terror is the brutality of the act, before his father’s dangling maroon paisley tie saves the day (at least for that night). The description of how the boy views his father’s sexual encounter with Monkton while climbing down the home’s drainpipe is discomforting to the reader precisely because the child does not comprehend the act.

Towards the end of the novel, the boy swims in the ‘ocean’ and understands everything: “I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.” Childhood may not be that way -- adults occupy the driver’s seat and things may not always tie up in the end. And Gaiman’s novel takes a dip in the pool of that grim fact.

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