Summary (Amazon): Neil Gaiman’s intent was simple: to write a short story. What he ended up with instead was The Ocean at the of the Lane–his first adult novel since Anansi Boys came out in 2005, and a narrative so thoughtful and thrilling that it’s as difficult to stop reading as it was for Gaiman to stop writing. Forty years ago, our narrator, who was then a seven-year-old boy, unwittingly discovered a neighboring family’s supernatural secret. What happens next is an imaginative romp through otherwordly adventure that could only come from Gaiman’s magical mind. Childhood innocence is tested and transcended as we see what getting between ancient, mystic forces can cost, as well as what can be gained from the power of true friendship. The result is a captivating tale that is equal parts sweet, sad, and spooky.
My Review (Spoilers!):
Executive Summary: magical
I came about this book due to a Christmas gifting malfunction. We ordered some books for my sister-in-law for Christmas, and when they didn’t arrive, we ordered replacements. And Murphy’s law, we eventually received both sets, so we kept one. This was one of the books. I have read exactly one Neil Gaiman book before (Stardust) which I wasn’t overly impressed by. I have wanted to read more of his as I know he is very well-liked, and I wanted to figure out what I was missing! This one I really enjoyed! Also the book has a dedication that says “For Amanda, who wanted to know”. So maybe he was talking to me? 🙂
The book begins with an adult man (unnamed throughout the book so I’m going to refer to him as “TN”–the narrator) returning to his hometown for a funeral. He has a bit of time before going to his sister’s house, so he kills a little time first by driving by the location of the house where he grew up before heading, somewhat subconsciously, to the Hempstock’s farm. Upon arriving, he meets Mrs. Hempstock, and she offers him some tea. He asks if Lettie, his childhood friend, is there, but Mrs. Hempstock says she isn’t, so he asks if he can go sit at the duck pond. Mrs. Hempstock is fine with it.
He heads down to the pond, and he remembers that Lettie always called it her ocean. And suddenly, an ocean of memories of childhood returns to him.
Shortly after his seventh birthday (which no one came to), the South African opal miner boarder who his parents were hosting after their luck had changed, stole their Mini Cooper and committed suicide in the back of it. They found the car on a dead end road near Hempstock’s farm. (At the beginning of the book, we meet the miner when he accidentally run s over the narrator’s kitten. The black kitten named Fluffy that he had gotten for his birthday was now replaced by a mean orange tomcat the miner called Monster. So I didn’t feel that bad about the miner committing suicide.) Lettie Hempstock, a little older than TN, comes down to the scene of the accident and tells the police and TN’s father that the boy can come stay at their house until they are done with the necessary paperwork.
He goes to their farmhouse, and meets Lettie, Mrs. Hempstock, and Old Mrs. Hempstock. They know more about the accident than he does, including the words that were on the note in the miner’s pocket, confirming that he had committed suicide due to gambling debts. The older women suggest that Lettie take TN to the pond where she tells him that it is really an ocean that they came across from the old country when she was just a baby. In the pond/ocean, they find a dead fish, which Lettie assures is very unusual. She guts the fish and finds that it had died from eating a sixpence, which she gives to TN. His father returns for him, and they return home.
The following day, TN’s mom tells him that he has won £25. Later that day, the gardener finds a jar full of ancient coins in the vegetable garden. TN goes to bed happy as he has more money that he ever has. He awakes choking and pulls a shilling out of his throat. He goes outside, and his sister yells at him for throwing coins at her and her friends. (He and his sister don’t really get along well.) He’s confused and begins to walk down his driveway. Just anywhere to get away. And Lettie is at the end of his driveway waiting for him. He tells her about the weird occurrences and she tells him that someone is trying to give people money, but they are doing it badly. It has to do with the opal miner somehow. Lettie invites TN over for breakfast. Old Mrs. Hempstock examines TN’s shilling, and despite the fact that it’s dated 1912, she insists that it is brand new. Lettie takes TN to go find “her”, bind “her”, and send “her” back to sleep. It seems like all the Hempstocks are old as time, but the reader never really learns anything too specific.
Lettie uses some sort of divining rod to find her. TN is instructed to not let go of Lettie’s hand under any circumstance. Of course, he’s a 7 year old boy, so when the huge ragged sort-of woman appeared in a storm and throws something toward them, TN catches it. Lettie, who has been trying to get the woman to reveal her name, knocks it out of his hand, but a pain has already appeared in TN’s foot (he doesn’t tell Lettie). Lettie continues singing her binding song, and at the end, the storm has died, so they head home considering it a success.
(This is not important to the story itself but I seriously wish this existed. On the way back to Lettie’s farm, TN sees a field of what appears like furry snakes. Lettie encourages him to pull out one, and it’s a kitten! A FIELD OF KITTENS! Squeeeee!!!)
When he arrives home, TN inspects his foot. There’s a small line and a hole. Using tweezers, he pulls a giant worm out of the hole in his foot (gross) and puts it down the drain. The following day, his mother announces that she has a new job, and TN and his sister are going to be watched by their new boarder, Ursula Monkton. When TN sees Ursula, he realizes she is the human form of the raggedy woman that he and Lettie encountered in the forest. TN’s sister loves her new friend Ursula, but Ursula has it in for TN. TN wants to go speak to Lettie, but Ursula forbids them from going outside the grounds. Every time he tries to sneak away, she catches him. He knows that he needs to talk to the Hempstocks, but he doesn’t know how to contact them, especially while Ursula is turning his entire family against him and monitoring his every move. She begins seducing TN’s dad, who becomes hypnotized of sorts by her and nearly drowns TN in the bathtub.
Finally one evening, TN realizes that she has some sort of mind connection with him due to being inside him (apparently she was the worm in his foot). He carefully sneaks out of his room and heads toward the Hempstock’s all the while sending thoughts that he is in his bedroom so as not to alert Ursula. She figures it out just as he is stepping onto the Hempstock’s property, and they know she is off to alert his parents. They quickly devise a plan to “snip and cut” TN’s garment, and Old Mrs. Hempstock begins. Shortly thereafter, TN’s parents arrive, but Old Mrs. Hempstock finishes her snip and cut just in time, so they forget why they stormed over to find TN, and they allow him to stay at the Hempstock’s.
Old Mrs. Hempstock removes the hole in his foot, and they begin preparations to get rid of Ursula. Lettie has collected a plethora of random items that she plans to use to drop around to contain Ursula so she can’t escape and terrorize a larger amount of people. She and TN go to see Ursula to give her one last chance to go home on her own accord, but Ursula likes where she is now. She’s making people happy, especially TN’s dad, and she doesn’t want to go. They know what Ursula is (a flea), and there is another creature (a varmint) out there that she is afraid of, so they decide to summon these creatures to send her home. Ursula becomes nervous and starts to try to return home through the hole that the Hempstocks removed from TN’s foot. But she doesn’t want to go without TN. As she tries to take him with her, the varmints arrive and devour her. But once the varmints have finished, they won’t leave until also devouring TN.
Lettie tells TN to stay in the fairy ring that surrounds the tree in his backyard, while she figures out what to do. This time, TN obeys her. A variety of people appear to try to seduce him out of the ring–the opal miner, his sister, his father, Ursula, even Lettie–but none of them will step inside the ring, so he knows that they aren’t real. The real Lettie eventually returns with a bucket of water from her ocean. She instructs TN to step inside it and when he does, he realizes it is more than an ocean. Inside the ocean, he could breathe, and he knew everything about everything. The ocean in the bucket was attached to the actual ocean so when he finally, reluctantly, surfaced, he’s back at the Hempstock’s. Eventually the varmints return for TN and begin tearing out pieces of the world, leaving nothing behind. TN realizes that if he doesn’t sacrifice himself, the entire world will be destroyed. He runs off the Hempstock’s protected property, and is thrown to the ground. But not by the varmints, by Lettie trying to protect him, and she is severely injured by the varmints. Her cries awake Old Mrs. Hempstock from her slumber, and she sends the varmints home.
Lettie needs to recover, so she is placed in her ocean to heal, and TN is returned home. His mother tells him that Ursula had to leave due to family issues, and Mrs. Hempstock tells them that Lettie is going to Australia to be with her father. TN seems to have a vague memory that that isn’t what happened, but he can’t seem to recall exactly what happened.
He’s awakened from his memory as Mrs. Hempstock appears with a sandwich. He asks her why he came there, and she says that he came to get away like he always does. He says he hasn’t been there since he was a child, but she assures him that he has been back before. He came back once when he was twenty-four with two young children, and he was scared. He came again when he was in his thirties and told her about his dreams. He doesn’t remember either time, but she tells him that it’s easier that way. She tells him that Lettie is finally almost healed, and he thanks the ocean (Lettie) for saving his life. As they are walking away so that TN can head to the funeral, he has already begun to forget. He tells Mrs. Hempstock to tell Lettie hello from him next time she writes from Australia.
Verdict: 4 stars
This book is short, but there is no fluff. Every word has a purpose. Even though I didn’t have quite as exciting of a childhood as the narrator, I think that it is easy to relate to this story. We all have memories that reappear when we find ourselves in the situation where the memories were created. We also all had situations that as children seemed magical, but to any adult would be simple and foolish. But, there’s also a realization that grown-ups aren’t really all that different from children. “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” As I’ve grown older, I absolutely believe this. The only thing that I felt was a little lacking in the book was that I never felt fully immersed in the story like I sometimes do with other fantasy stories. However, I am really glad that I gave Gaiman another shot.