Some of the people I have mentioned this book to love Neil Gaiman’s work because he tells stories that draw on the mythical, the archetypal, pulling on deep threads of human experience and weaving it into contemporary settings. Others find that he pulls on those too quickly, that there isn’t enough context around the story to give it the kind of heft that Gaiman appears to want. I’m somewhere in the middle, though I have read less than half a dozen of his books, and have only just approached the first two volumes of Sandman. Mine is an incomplete education. Good Omens is an all-time favorite, one of those books I have to be careful about picking up if I want to do anything else at all in the next couple of days. Neverwhere I remember as dark and clever, but I’ve only read it once, back when it was new.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins with a man driving away from a funeral; readers are not told whose, only that
I had done my duty in the morning, spoken the words I was meant to speak, and I meant them as I spoke then, and then, when the service was done, I got in my car and I drove, randomly, without a plan, with an hour or so to kill before I met more people I had not seen for years and shook more hands and drank too many cups of tea from the best china. (p. 3)
The narrator reveals a little more about himself:
It was time, I knew, to drive to my sister’s bustling, cheerful house, all tidied and stiff for the day. I would talk to people whose existence I had forgotten years before and they would ask me about my marriage (failed a decade ago, a relationship that had slowly frayed until eventually, as they always seem to, it broke) and whether I was seeing anyone (I wasn’t; I was not even sure that I could, not yet) and they would ask about my children (all grown up, they have their own lives, they wish they could be here today), work (doing fine, thank you, I would say, never knowing how to talk about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it. I make art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all). We would talk about the departed; we would remember the dead. (p. 4)
He has driven himself back to the site of his childhood home, now torn down to make way for a housing development. He remembers that lost home very well, and the house where he lived as a teenager, which is on the same plot of land, he remembers barely at all. After pausing briefly at the site of the two houses, he drives further down memory lane, past where it changes from a paved two-lane road into a dirt track where two vehicles can barely pass between the hedges, until he reaches its end. Or perhaps its beginning, its source.
There, at the end of the lane, is the Hempstock farm, his goal, though he hadn’t known that until he got there, probably hadn’t even recalled the farm in years. More memories come back as he walks up to the farm house: his friend Lettie, who had been 11 the year that he turned seven and nobody came to his birthday party; Mrs. Hempstock, and her mother, Old Mrs. Hempstock.
“Are you here to see Lettie?” Mrs. Hemptsock asked.
“Is she here?” The idea surprised me. She had gone somewhere, hadn’t she? America? (p. 6)
He would not have remembered Lettie’s name if he had been asked an hour earlier, but now he recalls the way around the corner to the duck pond, the one that Lettie called an ocean. And remembering the ocean, he remembers everything that happened.
Everything begins with the bang of the car that brought the new lodger hitting the narrator’s newly acquired and much loved kitten. The lodger, an opal miner arrived from South Africa with no more explanation than that, thinks he can pay the debt by offering a semi-tame tom cat in exchange. A few pages later, the police call saying that someone has reported the family’s car abandoned at the bottom of the lane, even though they hadn’t reported it as stolen; in fact, they had only just then noted its absence. The opal miner had driven it down to the end of the lane, not far from the Hempstock house, and killed himself in it. The Hempstocks take the boy inside, to get him over his shock, while the police go about their business. Then come the first indications that the Hempstocks are not just another farming family consisting solely of two women and a girl: they know how many policemen will arrive and be wanting tea; they know what the dead man intended to write in his suicide note; they seem to be able to nudge the thoughts of the investigators.
From then on, magic pours into the narrator’s world. The opal miner’s death has let some things into the world that shouldn’t be there. The narrator wakes up from a strange dream to find himself nearly choking on a real silver shilling that has appeared deep in his throat.
I said, “Lettie? What’s happening?”
“Oh,” she said, as if it was obvious. “Someone’s just trying to give people money, that’s all. But it’s doing it very badly, and it’s stirring things up around here that should be asleep. And that’s not good.” (p. 29)
Lettie and the boy set out to set things right, but of course not all goes as it should, and both the dangers and the costs of setting all to right get higher. It’s an effective, deliciously creepy book, one that masks unknown terrors with nonchalance, and one that does not try to explain its magic but is content just to show that it is. And when I thought that the story might be done and wrapped up, Gaiman dropped in a few more surprises about memory, and what lies down at the end of its lane.