Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral.  Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the lane, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother.  He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (that she had claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back.  Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm.  Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways.  The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy.  And Lettie--magical, comforting, wise beyond her years--promised to protect him, no matter what.

Some books you read, some books you just immerse yourself in; Neil's fall into the latter category.  The book started out as a short story and grew into a novel.  This haunting look at childhood, magic, and myth is both beautiful and horrifying.  Like all of Neil's books, it is full of rich quotable passages like this:  “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.”  Or, this:  "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 the spaces between fences."

It starts off with a quote from Maurice Sendak, which aptly sets the tone for the story:  "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 helps us remember the powerlessness of childhood in a very poetic and imaginative way, and helps us examine memories and the boundaries between worlds that can sometimes shift and open doorways to nightmares, fairy tales, and magic.

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