When there were monsters
July 19, 2013
Neil Gaiman’s new novel begins sensibly enough: A middle-aged man breaks away from a family funeral to visit his boyhood home. The countryside fields he once knew are now consumed with a housing development, but a neighbor’s farm still exists. Our nameless narrator in The Ocean at the End of the Lane finds Old Mrs. Hempstock still living there, the grandmother to his childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, and she directs him toward the duck pond, which Lettie once called an ocean.
From here on, we get an odd story about an adult remembering childhood events. It is fantastical and magical in its plot components, as we enter what the narrator believed and feared when an opal miner boarding at the boy’s family house committed suicide in the family car over financial losses. His greed unleashes a monster that resides on Hempstock farmland. Lettie renders it powerless, only something goes wrong and the monster manifests itself as the boy’s new nanny, Ursula Monkton.
The action builds slowly, almost too slowly, but finally gets its urgency when the narrator’s father, overwhelmed by Ursula’s power, almost kills his son. The boy seeks refuge at the Hempstock farm where Lettie’s mother and grandmother comfort him with creamy, rich foods and snip and stitch the fabric of time to protect him. All three of the Hempstock women are mysteriously empowered and have access to time beyond the human dimension.
If this sounds like a child’s monster story, it’s not. The fantasy defies adult logic because it is shaped by a seven-year-old’s perspective of the adult world. Neil Gaiman gives us a vivid narrative feast for what that looks like – turning suicide, financial worries, adult rules and a confused understanding of trust into palpable fear and distortion. Of Ursula Monkton, Gaiman writes:
“She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty.”
In the end, the boy survives all the nasties, but we know, in advance, that will be true by virtue of the middle-aged man sitting on a bench by the duck pond that Lettie called an ocean.
This review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane was recorded for broadcast on WOSU Public Media 89.7 FM.