Originally published August 2013
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of those books.
The kind where you break out the highlighter, or bend pages back, because there are passages that strike you as so profound in such a simple way, you want to read them over and over again.
Neil Gaiman is at his fantastical best with The Ocean at the End of the Lane—a short, you-can-read-in-one-sitting novel that serves as a fictional memoir for a middle-aged man, returning to his roots in Sussex, in time for a funeral. Is it the death of a loved one that reminds him on some subconscious level of his childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock? Maybe it’s the rote memory inside of all of us that led him back down a familiar lane to his friend’s home. No matter—our narrator soon finds himself at a pond and awash in memories of being 7 years old and powerless, all over again.
For me, the Hempstock clan is a happy reminder of Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit from Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle In Time.” There’s magic in this family, but to what degree, we don’t know. And they come from a place unfamiliar to our daily lives, but somehow very real to our childhood imaginations. It’s a lonely youth, spent buried in books, that can create the most amazing friends—friends that understand their pain and protect them from the everyday evils of strange boarders, disapproving fathers and evil nannies.
The story itself is beautiful—love, faith and redemption all figure prominently. But it’s Gaiman’s prose that grabs you and has you thinking long after you put the book down. Passages like this:
“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
At least for a little while, I have an entirely new perspective on just about everyone I meet. Makes a difference going into a tough meeting, or trying to negotiate with your teen, when you imagine that really, everyone is carrying around a child’s heart, mind and soul inside.
Read The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Share it with a friend, or a child. It’s an ode to what friends can and should do for each other — as Lettie would suggest, just never let go.