Eight years have passed since Neil Gaiman published “Anansi Boys,” his most recent novel for an adult audience, and now his new story, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” marks the return of one of the fantastic mythmakers of our time. This is a slim work, shading toward novella length, best read on a shut-in rainy day or a sultry summer night to savor its wonder and nostalgia.
Lurking beneath the story of a frightened boy in supernatural peril is the even more frightening tale of the prospect of middle age. The narrator, an unnamed man in his late 40s, beset by disappointments in his personal life and his work, returns to his childhood village in Sussex to attend a funeral. There, he finds himself drawn back to search the English countryside, now altered by the sprawl of housing estates.
All that remains at the end of a windy lane is the bucolic Hempstock farm, which has been there for centuries. An older woman he vaguely recalls welcomes him and invites him to sit a spell at a little pond on the property. His memory takes him back to the year when he turned 7 and was befriended by the strange and mysterious 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, who called the duck pond her ocean. “I wondered if we had ever fallen in the water. Had I pushed her into the duck pond, that strange girl who lived in the farm at the very bottom of the lane? I remembered her being in the water. Perhaps she had pushed me in too.”
In this place of make-believe, the man tries to sort through his memories. He was a bookish boy, fond of myths, children’s adventure stories and Gilbert and Sullivan songs. His family lived on the edge of financial hardship, and he had no friends. Into this bleak existence arrived the fabulous Lettie, her mother and her grandmother, who gradually reveal that they have been on the farm for at least a millennium. The Hempstocks are wonderfully drawn characters, earthy, homespun and fiercely protective of their new little friend, particularly when trouble arrives.
And what trouble it is. A veil between the worlds is rent, and out pop some of the most vivid monsters in the Gaiman canon, including a seductress who gives this novel its mildly “adult” flavor, footworms (as bad as they sound), and amorphous creatures bigger than houses and full of menace. One particularly spooky sequence involves a series of imposters of all the people in the boy’s life whom he ordinarily trusts, trying to tempt him with threats and entreaties. Set against these varmints are the boy’s fierce protectors, the three generations of Hempstock women. The clash of the two supernatural forces gives the story its nervous energy.
Gaiman is a magpie, a maker of collages, creating something new and original out of the bits and pieces of his wide reading of myth and folklore. This intricate supernatural world in a rural corner of England offers strong hints of the neopagan Threefold Goddess (Robert Graves’s Maiden, Mother and Crone) and the healing powers of water, particularly the ocean, as well as allusions to Gaiman’s other works. (There is a Liza Hempstock in “The Graveyard Book,” and vicious birds frequent many of his stories, including the “carrion kind” in his Sandman graphic novels, to name but two links. Dedicated readers will recognize further connections.)
What a weird world he’s made, as weirdly compelling as, say, the parallel worlds in his widely popular novel “Coraline.” The metaphysics of the Hempstock farm and the various monsters that threaten Lettie and the boy are neatly juxtaposed against the claims of the adult narrator. He is uncertain as to what really happened and what it all really means, just as we are, but there is no question about what is at play in “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”
This is a novel of nostos — that ineffable longing for home, for the sensations and feelings of childhood, when the world was frightening and magical all at once, when anything and everything were possible. A place and time when the experience of reading a book opened the imagination to enchantment and to terror. “I do not miss childhood,” the narrator says, “but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy.”
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is a small thing with much joy and heartache, sacrifice and friendship, beautifully crafted and as lonesome as the ocean.
Donohue is the author of “The Stolen Child” and two other novels.
THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE
By Neil Gaiman
William Morrow. 192 pp. $25.99