Pure joy is the high-pitched giggles of toddlers at a playground. The universe for children is immediate and small. A big bang in their social fabric unleashes an expansion of imaginary fears that parallel reality. Subsumed in a black hole of adulthood, memories are rekindled upon a return to the childhood home.
This is the case in Neil Gaiman’s novel “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” A middle-aged man returns to his English countryside childhood home and visits the Hempstocks, neighbor’s farm where he found comfort and mythical protection from real and imagined forces when he was a boy. The list of Mr. Gaiman’s other works at the outset of the book categorizes his works as “For Adults” and “For All Ages”. I would place this novel in the latter category, although he might not. The novel shares the wonderful imagination of well written children’s literature. It could be scary, but not as dark as Grimm. As an adult retrospective of the childhood period of the narrator’s life, it transforms childhood imagination into philosophy about the universe that might border on the “Twilight Zone”. This would be lost on readers before late elementary school, but could invite worthwhile questions. It would have loved to have this book illustrated.
The story is namelessly told in first person. A lonely bookish boy of seven has a birthday party to which no one comes. His parents are having an economic downturn and take on borders. The boy loses his room to a border, who soon is found dead. The boy is taken to the Hempstock’s to stay while the police investigate. The Hempstocks are 3 generations of well-drawn women who live alone. The youngest, eleven year old Lettie, befriends and protects him like an elder sister. She introduces him to the pond on the farm, which she says is an ocean. At home, the boy’s life is unsettled by a live-in nanny with extracurricular activities, while his mom is at work. He wants his parents to replace her, but his father demands otherwise. Her evil is more than human, altering the relationship with his father. The Hempstocks are goddesses as old as time who become his protectors. Upon returning to their farm as an adult, he asks after Lettie, who still has not returned from Australia after having been put in the ocean.
Mr. Gaiman possesses a child’s mind. Untethered by adult constraints, he fashions a work that can be read by readers of all ages. Water seeks its level. Readers will do the same with this enjoyable novel.