July 2013

Arts & Letters

‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ by Neil Gaiman

By Claire Corbett
Headline; $27.99

“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.”

Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett is a journalist and the author of When We Have Wings. Her new novel, Watch Over Me, was recently published by Allen & Unwin.

www.clairecorbett.com

 

@ccorbettauthor

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

“We’re all conservatives now”

Guy Rundle interviews Julian Assange at the Embassy of Ecuador, London
© John Woudstra / Fairfax Syndication

Inside Tony Abbott’s mind

What would an Abbott government look like?

Alex Gibney’s ‘We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks’

This documentary’s sympathies are not with Julian Assange

The Age offices in Collins Street, Melbourne c. 1903. © Fairfax Syndication

The death of Fairfax and the end of newspapers

Where is the journalism we need going to come from now?


More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions


More in Noted

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality