One should never judge a book by its cover. We all know this. But when you hold in your hands The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and look at the haunting picture of of a girl gracefully floating just beneath the water’s surface, you can’t help but dare and think that what you’re about to read will be just as beautiful as the cover.
And it is.
I’ve always felt that Gaiman is at his best when his stories are short and compact, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is exactly like that. With only one tale to focus on, Gaiman is able to create a small bubble of a world that completely swallows you up. The plot initially seems simple, but how everything connects is never explicit. There are parts where the reader’s imagination has full reign in a world where a duck pond is an ocean.
The story follows an unhappy little boy when his life gets a little bit unhappier, which ironically happens after he makes his first true friend with Lettie Hempstock. The boy, who is never named (which seems to be whole metaphor in itself), is a solitary sort of boy who loves to lose himself in the world of books. No one comes to his birthday parties, and when he went to his one and only sleep over, he was tortured by the other boy. In Lettie Hempstock, he finds someone he can talk to, though he suspects she’s much more than an eleven-year-old girl. She takes him to another world and he accidentally brings back a “flea” from their journey, who takes on the form of Ursala Monkton, a house keeper who makes his life miserable.
There is a melancholy that is laced throughout the story as the main character slowly remembers his childhood, and it weaves in and out of the narrative as he recalls the terrible events of the dead opal miner, Ursula Monkton, and the fate of Lettie Hempstock. Though it has an adult perspective in its flashbacks, the story still comes off as a book for young and old readers alike.
I mention this because there is a lot of a talk about whether or not this is a young adult novel and why some of the more adult themes were not changed. This seems odd to me because having adult themes does not preclude it from being Young Adult fiction. What does happen in the book that is “adult” is about as explicit as a Disney movie, meaning that older readers will naturally understand what is happening, but children will not have much more of an idea than the main character, a seven-year-old boy, does.
But let’s be frank. If one were to place this novel on the spectrum of Young Adult to Adult fiction, it would be closer to Young Adult. But that’s a good thing. I like YA fiction that treats children like they are capable of becoming adults and that pushes them outside the humdrum stories of princesses in towers waiting to be rescued. The Ocean at the End of the Lane pushes and pulls in all the right ways. It reminds me of something Colin Baker (Doctor Who) said about how children need Grimm’s fairy tales and all the horrible things that come with it in order to learn important lessons in a safe environment. “You can’t teach children ‘stranger danger’ without Grimm’s fairy tales,” Baker reasons. I think Gaiman, a Doctor Who writer and fan himself, would appreciate this way of thinking, especially in light of this book.
All in all, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short read, but a good one. A dark read, but a beautiful one. A melancholic read, but a hopeful one.
‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ by Neil Gaiman is currently available for purchase.