I’m still struggling to think how to describe The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s kind of a coming-of-age novel, except that the protagonist - whose name we never know (of course!) - is only seven for the large part of the book. It’s kind of a fairy tale, in that it deals with supernatural species, except we never really find out what those species are.
The book starts with the main character as a grown man coming back to the town he lived in as a child for a funeral. On a whim he wanders off and drives through the town, heading for the land where his childhood home used to stand. When he gets there, he goes up the lane to the Hempstock farm, where his childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock lived with her mother and grandmother and when he gets there, he starts remembering all sorts of things his mind had suppressed.
The nearest I can come to describing the experience of reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane is that thing where you smell something really nice when you’re completely starving and it leaves you even hungrier than before. A sort of unsatisfied yearning.
Don’t get me wrong; if I had to put a label on this book, I’d totally call it art. Gaiman’s writing is incredibly evocative and you get a perfect sense of exactly what he’s trying to describe to you. I think he’s one of those rare writers who knows exactly the right word to use in any given situation, and that’s an incredible skill.
The plot is bonkers, and I say that as a connoisseur of paranormal, fantasy and sci-fi. Because we’re only seeing it through the eyes of a seven year old, there’s an awful lot that remains unsatisfyingly unexplained and an equal amount of bizarre stuff that is just accepted, unquestioningly.
The boy is a lovely character. He’s selfish and naively brave and intriguing and serves as a perfect foil to the mysterious Hempstock women, the evil Ursula Monkton and his pliable, insipid parents.
Aah ... the Hempstock women. What the hell are they? They’re not human, but are they fairies? Aliens? Demons? Angels? We may never know. And what are they supposed to represent? I thought at various points that they might be the personification of the three Fates, or maybe the maiden-mother-crone archetype. Maybe both, maybe neither. Are they supposed to represent anything at all? Maybe not.
I've actually decided not to rate this book. There's no doubt that it's a Good Book, but I have no idea if I enjoyed it or not. I think there are a lot of aspects that were lost on me, that there were allegories and metaphors that I just missed and ought to have picked up.
So yeah, this book is absolutely crackers. Do I regret reading it? Not a jot. Could I even begin to tell you what it was about. Mmm...not so much.
‘I wish you’d explain properly,’ I said. ‘You talk in mysteries all the time.’
Yeah, I know how you feel, mate.