I’ve found myself dwelling on Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane a fair bit lately. It became, very quickly, my favorite of his novels, as evidenced by such things as me calling it a treasure. After much pining over the deluxe edition, and many thanks to my mother (who does far more for me than I could ever hope to repay in anywhere less than a dozen lifetimes), I now sit waiting for its arrival. No single word or phrase seems adequate to describe the levels of excitement and anticipation, or the joy and disbelief, I’m experiencing over this as I impatiently await its arrival. My first edition of the American hardcover release, however, will continue to remain one of my most cherished books (I loaned it out earlier today, issuing a death threat should it return in less-than-perfect condition). I’ve thrown in a picture, because I honestly just love everything about this book (the picture’s on Instagram, which I’m learning does not like to share).
In many ways, The Ocean at the End of the Lane has gone from being a novel I loved reading to a sort of magic. To those who haven’t yet read it, I cannot recommend a fiction novel more highly than I do this one. There are some biases at work there, perhaps, but I stand firm in that assessment. To that end, I can’t help but wonder what about this particular novel really captured my heart (forgive the cliche, please). Yes, it’s beautifully written, with wonderful characters and a narrative that swept me up to such a degree I had to set the book down and focus on nothing else but accepting I had finished reading it once I’d completed the last page, but that wasn’t quite it. Tonight, in one of my more introspective moments, I think I’ve pinpointed at least a little of the magic of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and I’m content it’s only a little. Too much understanding, I’ve learned, can spoil this sort of thing.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is largely told through the memories of the narrator, who (as far as I can recall) doesn’t really bring up his own name. There’s something tricky about memories, and the way the human brain handles what happened back when as time passes tends to give events a more interesting slant. Adds character to them in some ways, and detracts from it in others. A Ferris wheel is, of course, just that, but when viewed from the eyes of a child can quickly transform into a magnificent chariot to the clouds and back. I’m by no means saying the events in the novel, fantastical as they are, should be chalked up to memory and its wily ways. It’s a work of fiction, where things like world-devouring varmints are very real.
All the same, it left me dwelling on memory and reflecting upon memories, and how reflecting can have such a strong impact on the present. In looking at what brought a person to the here and now, through whatever lenses–joyful or sinister or any of the many other possibilities–the brain applies, I think two things are happening. One being the closest thing humans can reasonably achieve, outside of science fiction, to time travel, as memories have so much power in transporting back to the state surrounding whatever happened in the moment being dwelled on. Every ounce of sensory data is transformed back into a real, live scene, and so are all of the white knights and wicked monsters, magical moments and painful regrets, and so on and so on. If captured just right, like the first sneaky lightning bugs on early summer evenings, those memories can be molded into something beautiful and, yes, fantastic*.
Secondly, I’ve found revisiting the past, for whatever reason, has at least some effect on the course of the present (even if it’s so little as briefly derailing the events of a day. For a moment, or two or ten or a million moments however small, the present and future are rendered immaterial by the past. I’m not necessarily talking full-on escapism here, either, but how through one thought, a hint of a familiar smell or a near-forgotten sound on the edge of hearing, it’s possible to suddenly end up at a childhood family home or back in line at an amusement park waiting for a first roller coaster ride ever (and feeling that overwhelming mixture of fear and anticipation that quickly turned into such violent shakes that standing up alone is a chore).
Watching the narrator recall the trials of his childhood, and the magic–both wonderful and terrible–he experienced, triggered all of this. The way his memories of Lettie Hempstock and the pond that’s really an ocean washed back over him as he approached certain landmarks is very true to the nature of memories, even if they aren’t always quite so grand. It’s in meandering through his memories that the narrator learns more about himself (something anyone, of course, can relate to; each day you wake up a somewhat new, slightly different person, after all). I fear I might be rambling at this point, however, as the word count moves ever closer to 1,000. Yet I can’t help but feel I’m leaving something out.
In closing, I would like to say this: thank you, Neil Gaiman. In setting out to write a short story for one person, which evolved into a novel that ended far too soon (even if it was, simultaneously, just right) that made me feel so much. It has accompanied me through wonderful times as well as particularly trying times, always a welcome reprieve from the difficulties of the very real world, with its occasionally boring and unpleasant plot lines. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane I have found much joy and inspiration as a writer, and I can’t help but share this literary Djinni’s lamp, filled to from cover to cover with dark, beautiful, magical things.
*I’m told I use the word fantastic a lot, and I’m entirely okay with that. I dare say I live a life that I hope would have made the 9th incarnation of the Doctor proud, or at least I’m trying.