This is the first Neil Gaiman book I have read and I was looking forward to it immensely. Glancing through other reviews I could see that others felt it isn’t his best book. Though plenty didn’t agree. However, having nothing to compare it to I felt I was lucky as I couldn’t be disappointed. But I was. A little. At first.
It was the title that drew me to this book. ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’. Posssibly sparked by something I had misheard on the radio, my imagination conjoured up magical images. The lane was a short lane leading from a suburban street of unremarkable, respectable houses. And the ocean was a real ocean. Vast. Unexpected. Just a few steps from this rather boring road. So eager had I been to start the book that I missed the page just before the Prologue. So my imagined faery scene remained intact.
I read the first few pages with happy anticipation. I somehow glossed over the fact that the setting was rural, not suburban. I think I too became seven again. “I walked into the farmyard. I went past the chicken coop, past the old barn and along the edge of the field …” I too picked a handful of green nuts and put them in my pocket. Then I turned the corner and found the pond.
Not an ocean. Not vast. Not unexpected. Just a pond in a farmyard. Not magical at all. A pond that a small girl had called an ocean. At that stage I felt that this was going to be a different book from the one I had expected. That was when I felt the twinge of disapppointment. Nevertheless, I was already appreciating the quality of the writing. Neil Gaiman’s ability to create a scene in just a few words. “I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny … I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.” So I read on.
Image piles on image. Weird images, scary images. The nightmare that isn’t. The terrifying, shudderingly icky worm – this is perhaps the thing that scared me most.
Then, “Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.” I was hooked. It’s fair to say that I gobbled this book up. I raced through it. I am now reading books with a pencil and notebook on the bed beside me, but I hadn’t started to do that at that point. So I am having to go back to it to remind myself of the details. And there’s so much detail. So many images. The birthday cake that has a book drawn on it and tells so much about this small boy. The tiny little yellow washbasin in the bedroom “at the top of the stairs”. The white mini stuck on the verge, the green toothbrush with toilet paper wrapped round the top.
Image piles on image. Weird images, scary images. The nightmare that isn’t. The terrifying, shudderingly icky worm – this is perhaps the thing that scared me most but I can’t say more without spoilng it. The everyday world where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted, not even your parents. I was no longer disappointed. I was and am enthralled. Nevertheless, I’m finding it hard to review this book. I don’t want to stick labels on it. There’s a real world. That pleases me. There’s a fantastical, other worldly world of monsters and orange skies and a sinister, shape shifting babysitter. That delights me. (Ursula Monkton. What a splendid perfect name, both normal and menacing).
That enchanted place where there’s a different moon on the other side of the house, where the past can be snipped away with a pair of scissors
At least one reviewer has said that this book is childhood. It is. It’s that strange and wonderful world that only a child can imagine. A child or someone who is still a child in spirit. Someone who in some part of them has not really ever grown up. Who can journey back to that enchanted place where there’s a different moon on the other side of the house, where the past can be snipped away with a pair of scissors, where people live in the present and the past simultaneously. Where there are no limits to dreams and imaginings. Where children can ‘creep beneath the the rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.” And in the spaces between the fences lies a world of horror where a dead man walks “in a frilly white shirt and a black bow tie”, where the hunger birds have sharp beaks and faceless flapping things loom menacingly.
As I write I’m increasingly conscious of the fact that no review of mine can do justice to this bewitching, charming, spellbinding story. You just have to read it. “I love my ocean,” says Lettie Hemstock. And I love it too.