In my review not long ago of Gaiman and Patchett’s Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter Witch, I referred to the suggestion that a common fate of that particular novel was to be read in the bath, and I pointed out that I had bought it to read on the bus. The same is true of Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It was one of my trophies found in Powell’s a couple of weeks ago, and I thought The Ocean at the End of the Lane looked just the thing for the Vancouver Transit system: slim (178 pages of novel), lightweight, and therefore easy to carry. Of such are decisions made. I also suspected that I might find the novel amusing.
Instead, I found The Ocean at the End of the Lane no lightweight amusement at all, but a melancholic reverie. The novel begins as a funeral service ends, and the un-named narrator, eschewing conversation and drinking “too many cups of tea” (3) avoids driving to his sister’s house and instead takes a literal trip down the memory lane of his childhood. While initially “the little country lane” of his childhood is now a “black tarmac road,” he ultimately finds himself “driven back in time” to where the lane is as he remembers it and he finds himself confronting the “childhood memories” that are “sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet” (4-5).
Gaiman’s novel isn’t the first, of course, to deal with adults facing and dealing with the traumas of their childhood. What makes The Ocean at the End of the Lane stand out is its brevity—Gaiman is able to achieve much in his concise one hundred and seventy-eight pages—and the fact that it is magic realism. In this work, Gaiman reminds me at times of the lesser-known stories by Hans Christian Andersen. One is also tempted to draw comparisons with Borges and Márquez. If you cannot suspend your disbelief, if you don’t like fantasy, don’t like fairy-tales, you won’t appreciate this book. Here are all the ingredients of a world of wonders: the manipulation of time and space, shape changing, the wise women who guide and provide the naïve protagonist talismans against evil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a wonder tale, but it has no saccharine conclusion.
Despite its fantastic elements, the novel is intensely psychologically real in its presentation of loneliness and in its handling of the way memory represses trauma and guilt. Loneliness, unfulfilled desire, and guilt lie at the heart of the work. It is perhaps significant that the narrator himself is never named rendering him at once both an Everyman character but also someone unplaced, un-named, alone.
Elegaic, nostalgic, and at times disturbing, even violent, the novel captures the paradox of the naïve child who is also far more intuitively clear-sighted than most of the adults around him. A story of sacrifice and atonement, of loss, and of the redemptive power of imagination, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an intensely satisfying work on many levels.