Neil Gaiman‘s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of the most powerful novels that I have read to date. This story is an amalgam of helplessness and innocent ignorance of childhood with universe-old wisdom. With mystery and wonder and unexplainable and unfathomable things that lurk around the corners of reality and seep through the cracks in the world. It is a story with friendship and love, with cruelty and resentment, with monsters. In the true fashion that I have come to love — the real monsters come from the people’s wishes, the deep down dark that lives inside us.
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to both reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.
Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a story that I was drawn to and couldn’t put down once I started reading it. Every element featured in the book was there for a purpose, and each character only pulled me further into the story.
However, the main reason why I enjoyed this book so much, was the message that I felt the Gaiman was trying to tell us through the events that happened. The idea that our memory is both incredibly powerful yet, at the same time, inevitably flawed.
Our memory is something that revels in ambiguity — so if two people experience the exact same moment, they will both have two very different opinions of how things really went down. So for our purposes in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, when the man us telling us the story of the all incredible events that occurred during that fateful spring break, it is important to keep in mind that everything he tells us is coming from his memory – and decades after the fact. More than that, we also have to remember that the Hempstocks have a way of messing with memories. So, in other words, who knows what actually happened?
There are two main points in the story that support this thought. Near the end of the novel, Gaiman wrote:
“I was awash in memory, and I wanted to know what it meant. I said, ‘Is it true?’ and felt foolish. Of all the questions I could have asked, I had asked that.
Old Mrs. Hempstock shrugged. ‘What you remembered? Probably. More or less. Different people remember things differently, and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same, whether they were there or not. You stand two of you lot next to each other, and you could be continents away for all it means anything.'”
– Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
As I said before, it’s true that no two people will remember an event the same way — so who will have the “true” recollection? Are memories just lies that we all tell ourselves, since they are so subjective? It’s interesting that memory plays such an important part in the book. Memories are just stories that we tell ourselves, after all, and not only are we told a story in the book, but books are means of telling stories in their own right. Seems like there are just stories everywhere, right?
Also, Gaiman teaches us a truth about memories. In the prologue, he writes:
“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.” – Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Not only is this beautiful imagery, but this just makes sense. Think about some of your oldest memories – it’s hard to, right? Unless your thumbing through an old photo album, or digging through your parent’s attic, memories tent to lie dormant until something triggers them, though then they’re right there.
This is a phenomenon that becomes truer the older you get. Someday you might return to your high school for a reunion, and although your memories are a bit hazy, you will step inside and suddenly you remember those hallways like the back of your hand, and you remember things that happened there as if it were yesterday. Places where you spend a ton of time, especially during formative years, will remain ingrained in your mind for far longer than is rally necessary.
So, in that way, our memory is both incredibly powerful and at the same time, inevitably flawed. Memory is funny that way.