I finished reading ‘Ocean at the end of the lane’ by Neil Gaiman. It was not what I had expected. Had expected something on the wavelength of Coraline. Instead it turned out to be a surreal fairy tale for adults. Apart from being darker, scarier and more intense, it touches on child abuse and adult themes. Not for a young audience, this one. But what a captivating and haunting plot, fascinating characters and evocative narrative with a theme that traverses the bridge between childhood and adulthood soaked in rich imagination. It explores the memories of a seven year old bookworm, piecing together events from his past to unveil an edgy story set in a chaotic world steeped in innocence, mystery, danger, mysticism, fear, friendship and fantasy. The ending was bittersweet and left me hoping for a sequel.
A successful but gloomy artist’s visit to his hometown unlocks his childhood memories. Specifically those of him being a seven year old boy lost in a realm of books and imagination. An introverted boy who is seemingly part of a regular family. But things begin to unravel triggered by the suicide of a man boarding in their house. Owing to his gambling losses, the lodger decides to end his life and that too in the boy’s family car. The event seems to invoke an evil energy of a timeless nature that threatens to seduce and consume the boy’s family and the world as well. The event coincides with the boy’s serendipitous meeting and striking of friendship with a rather remarkable girl called Lettie Hemstock and also finding a safe haven in her home during the toughest times of his life. The family consisting of her mother and grandmother takes the boy under their wings. They provide a sanctuary to keep him unharmed at least for a while, till he barely tides over the scary incidents that follow. Lettie arrives just at the nick of time to help him overcome some of the terrors he encounters along the way, considering he unwittingly becomes the portal to something from beyond. Her’s is an unusual family with supernatural powers and knowledge way beyond human comprehension, with a pond beside their house, which they refer to as an ocean. A sense of helplessness and careless evil fills the atmosphere, even as the boy’s time spent at Lettie’s house and enjoying comfort food in the truest sense of the term inspires a strong feeling of childhood nostalgia and old world simplicity, trust and charm. But the story is anything but simple as it peels layers, alluding to the world being a ‘painted-on illusion’, and deftly removes the mask off a mundane regular family hiding a dysfunctional streak. As the narrative flows etching a dreamscape that is eerie and surreal, the perception seamlessly switches between an adult’s and a child’s, creating a startling conflict of views and emotions. Adulthood’s jaded ennui is contrasted with a childhood that is marked by wonder and magic, shading the story in multiple hues. References to Alice in Wonderland and scientific concepts of dark matter and quantum physics combined with the whimsical adds tremendously to the book’s appeal.
Overall it is a wholesome adult fantasy with nail biting moments and an emotionally stirring conclusion with threads left open for interpretation and mulling over in leisure.
Some memorable quotes from the book –
“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. I was a child, which meant that I knew a dozen different ways of getting out of our property and into the lane, ways that would not involve walking down our drive.”
“Words save our lives, sometimes.”
“She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty.”
“I loved to sleep with the window open. Rainy nights were the best of all: I would open the window and put my head on the pillow and close my eyes and feel the wind on my face and listen to the trees sway and creak.”
“I wondered if that was true: if they were all really children wrapped up in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long adult books, the kind with no pictures or conversations.”