Everyone remembers their first proper, “adult” book that they read as a child; that first, exhilarating crossing over of a threshold into a world of words and stories that you don’t fully understand but still remain intriguing anyway. For me, that was Neil Gaiman’s semi-fantastical novel “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”, an easy segue from his children’s fantasy such as “Coraline” to the more adult, but still as dark adult fiction. However, it is ironic, reading this book now as a young adult, that a book that was so formative in my childhood memories is also about memory and crossing thresholds as a child- albeit in a far darker, much more sinister way.
The story opens with the narrator returning to the home of his childhood friend, following the funeral of his father. As we learn later in the plot, this is not the first time the adult narrator has made this journey by any stretch of the imagination, however, after every visit, he appears to suffer some form of amnesia that makes him forget the entire ordeal. On this particular visit, we as the reader are made privy to a particular episode in his childhood involving heart-eating birds, extra-dimensional cloth eldritch abominations which come out of holes in the feet and pose as little boy’s babysitters, and ponds as deep as the ocean. Whilst this might not seem like a typical childhood memory, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” draws on a sense of childhood whimsy in its narration, relating upsetting and traumatic events of upheaval, disruption, bereavement and change through the eyes of a child. All the events in the story come from very adult experiences of desperation and longing: the Opal miner who commits suicide in the opening of the story, thus inadvertently summoning the cloth-worm-babysitter creature into this world, the fragmented relationship between the boy’s parents which leads to infidelity, even the feelings of grief that come from losing a childhood pet. Whilst the narrative is fantastical, the sentiments underpinning it are highly realistic and emotional, as we begin to piece together the story as a child’s way of making sense of the fractious and desperate world around him.
As the great fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin said, “fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality”, a view that is echoed throughout this fantastical account of childhood memory. To a child, threatening adults can seem as incomprehensible as eldritch beings, parental figures can appear possessed when angry, and ponds truly can be as deep as oceans. Upsetting events here are related through a fantastical lens, because that is the child’s way of comprehending the world around him with all its strange faults and worries. However, the fantastical does not stay in the realm of terror. Gaiman weaves a web of child-like awe through his storytelling that is just as profound for showcasing the fantastical nature of childhood memory as the depictions of terror. The description of the eponymous ocean is one of pure child-like wonder as the narrator looks at the myriad stars shining above him and the tranquil, deep blue depths below him; it’s both a playful and fantastical equivocation of how the world seems to the scale of a child’s perspective. The vivid and vibrant descriptions of childhood domesticity are equally as comforting- from the boy’s room, to his colourful descriptions of clothing, the entire novel seems to be steeped in the glow of childhood nostalgia in spite of its dark fantasy themes.
Whilst “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” encapsulates many aspects of childhood and navigating the world through a child-like lens, it also discusses the loss of innocence and the inevitability of this. The narrator’s amnesia in many ways speaks to the loss of memory and imagination as an adult, his mind instead filled with the banality and regrets that come with age. The novel’s semi-folkloristic attention to symbols and the desire to render realistic events in a fantastic mode can also be applied to the narrator’s heart being eaten. This marks a crossing of the threshold, a step into a new world with a new-found body experience that cannot be reversed. There is certainly a loss, from this point onwards, of the warm wide-eyed, childish view of the world that is carried forth throughout the novel. However, despite the heartlessness, the amnesia, and the ageing of the narrator, a certain sense of whimsical nostalgia still permeates the storytelling. The fields are still as green as ever, the moon is still gazed upon with wonder, and most importantly, the duck pond is still a vast, endless ocean, stretching out into eternity.
Reading this book a second time, 8 years on, I was much like the narrator, instantly transported back to being that 11-year-old reading with wonder my first “proper” book. It’s a feeling that never truly leaves you, and all these years on, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” ‘s whimsical and fantastical “coming of age” tale and relation of childhood nostalgia is just as poignant, if not more.