“I liked myths,” says the unnamed male narrator of Neil Gaiman’s new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. “They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that … Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?”
Why, indeed. This novel considers why the literature of the fantastic so deeply divides adult readers, when tales of the strange and wonderful captivate all children.
When our narrator is seven, a lodger in the boy’s family home commits suicide and that act rips open a seam between worlds, allowing a creature to move between them. Calling herself Ursula Monkton, she takes over the boy’s family in a nightmare blend of Mary Poppins and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In simple, clear prose, Gaiman captures the intensifying isolation of the abused child, and the powerlessness of children to define, or even describe, reality.
Only the three magical Hempstock women – the girl Lettie, her mother and grandmother – who live on a farm at the end of the boy’s lane, can help. Their powers are often resonantly feminine, such as “snipping and stitching” reality, like the Fates. Unusually for fantasy, the book deftly marries scientific concepts and mythic archetypes. Gran Hempstock has been around since the Big Bang and can even command bacteria. It is the Hempstock duck pond that is the eponymous ocean.
So far this sounds like the set-up for any number of children’s fantasy novels, but Gaiman’s narrator is in his 40s and adult memory and understanding frames his boyhood tale.
Like the pond that is also an ocean, Gaiman’s book is bigger on the inside. It contains, as does all great fantasy literature, much of the real world: in this case, a 1960s childhood, true down to the price of sweets and the books the boy reads and the television he watches. Most of all, it weaves in other stories: Alice in Wonderland and Gilbert and Sullivan operas and Narnia and the sliver of mirror freezing the heart from Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’.
We know children confront their deepest fears through fairy-tales. The boy in Gaiman’s story realises his father, and other adults, are at their most cruel and irresponsible when they are vulnerable, unable to acknowledge the frightened child within themselves. Is Gaiman suggesting this is one reason adults don’t want to read about “dangerous fairies”?
“The truth is,” says Lettie Hempstock to the boy, “there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
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