The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a phenomenal book that focuses on the imagination and the creativity of children – especially when faced with difficult situations. The main character – whose name we never learn – goes to a spot from his childhood as an adult. It sparks a memory from long ago that has become tucked away in the recesses of his mind and we travel with him as he unfolds a long forgotten memory. As he recounts the story we fall into a rabbit hole of magic, mystery, and illusion that can only exist in the mind of a child.
Before I say anything more: SPOILERS! This is not just a review of how I felt about the book, but also an interpretation. In interpreting the book I rely heavily on events within the book. This is not a comprehensive interpretation. There are many events in the book that have been left out of this interpretation – either I found them not to fit with my interpretation or I just plum forgot that it happened (because even as short of a book as it is there’s no way I can hold every single detail in my memory). This is my own interpretation and what I took away from the book. You can wholly disagree with me (and I encourage you to do so!) or you can wholly agree with me. You can also kind of disagree/agree with me. You are not stuck into one position or the other because, well, fuck binaries.
I apologize for the lack of quotes (my friend actually has my copy right now) and I wanted to get this out. I’m going to start a monthly book interpretation/review on the second Monday of each month. I read several books each month (usually three) and thought that I could definitely do at least one review/interpretation each month on one of the books that I read. Not all of them will be fiction like the Ocean at the End of the Lane (in fact the next book I will be reviewing next is a philosophy book). Read on and I encourage you to comment. Books are relics, icons, and symbols which are representative of our time and they deserve to be talked about in addition to being experienced.
The whole novel juxtaposes a child’s point of view against the point of view of adults. The magic that the child sees is often in conflict with the world that adults see and perceive. The main character’s parents are representative of the adult perspective where everything is exactly as it seems. There is no magic or mystery. Things merely are as they are. And even if we take that as it is the whole novel made me feel like the child, despite the magic woven throughout the story he tells, was telling a story that was no less true than what the adults perceived. In this way the book challenges exactly what “truth” is and how reality and truth are not as clearly defined as we may think they are.
The antagonist of the story is the Nanny. The Nanny is hired by our main character’s parents so that his mother can take a job in the city. His mother leaves for work early in the morning and comes home late at night and she rarely makes appearances throughout the novel.
Our main character sees the Nanny for what she really is though – an other worldly beast that threatens his life, living, and his family. Our main character recounts insults and threats that were lobbed at him by the Nanny, including one threat to lock him in the attic. If we consider for a moment the idea that children embellish tales and exaggerate details we can assume that some of these threats, from the Nanny, were not as serious as our protagonist may have thought they were. In fact, some of the threats described may never have actually happened. But even in doing so, I don’t think it makes the reality that he describes any less real or any less of a reality than that which the adults in the novel perceive.
While the Nanny may not have actually been an other-worldly beast (epistemologically speaking) for our protagonist she was. The Nanny was tearing his family apart and was making his life far more miserable than it had been before. As the Nanny shows up his mother leaves – which can be interpreted as the Nanny replacing his mother. We also see our main character’s father become angrier and harsher in punishment as the novel progresses – a perceived manipulation of the father by the Nanny. While embellished and somewhat exaggerated there is no less truth to the magical story woven by our protagonist than an empirically “factual” tale that we would hear from an adult.
The other big time players in the novel are the Hempstock family. The Hempstock family consists of Lettie (a girl of 11 years old), Mrs. Hempstock (Lettie’s mother), and Old Mrs. Hempstock (Lettie’s grandmother). All of these women live together in a house at the end of the lane. There are no men who live at the Hempstock home. They are a group of strong independent women who manage their farm themselves without any external help. They are amazing feminist characters. I will discuss this later, but first I want to talk about how they fulfill the role of protector for our protagonist.
All of the Hempstock family is magical in the mind of our main character. Lettie, an 11 year old girl, has spell-like abilities (they are never described as such) that do amazing things. Lettie brings our protagonist along on her magical adventures into the magical realm that exists on the border of the Hempstock farm. Lettie gives our protagonist an escape from his crumbling world at home. It’s no wonder that he describes the Hempstock farm as a magical place and gives Lettie magical powers that help him escape his home life. She gives him escape from what seems like the worst thing that has ever happened to him.
Mrs. Hempstock and Old Mrs. Hempstock are both seen as protectors of both Lettie and our protagonist. Mrs. Hempstock and Old Mrs. Hempstock both take our protagonist’s concerns seriously and the work to help him. Mrs. Hempstock offers our main character food when he is hungry – often after refusing to eat the food that the Nanny had cooked. They often talked about how they could help our protagonist and indeed, do quite often. Old Mrs. Hempstock at one point “removes” a memory from existence so that his parents forget it ever happened. They let him sleep over with Lettie providing him shelter from the home he so desperately wants to escape from. (I should note, he doesn’t want to run away, but he wants things to go back to normal and until that happens he attempts to escape until it goes back to normal). In the end, they provide him shelter and comfort during a time of great upheaval in his life and often through magical means.
To the eyes of a 7-year-old this can be magic. Someone who can protect you, shelter you, and provide you comfort when you feel most broken (and at fault as our protagonist does) can often been seen as a miracle worker. To perceive the Hempstock family as magical strikes me as normal, not ridiculous or odd. The Hempstock family were like miracle workers to our protagonist.
The entire novel strikes me as an attempt to show how stories and magic can permeate our real world and in a way that is helpful to us. Life sucks, it really does, and when you can see the magic that goes on in everyday life things become far more bearable. As we become adults this is beaten out of us – the world is a place of science and epistemic questioning. Things happen in a specific way and we understand them in a specific way. There is no magic, nor illusion, nor any mystery to life. It’s a story about the sad state of affairs of adult creativity and imagination and how, as adults, we perceive children’s stories to be false. We see them as disconnected from reality and it’s disappointing. We beat the creativity out of children through education, learning, and academia. Learning is all about STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In our current day there is no room for writing, art, music, or general creativity. Gaiman has crafted a tale that forces us to reconnect with our inner child and recognize the power that we once held with creativity, imagination, and a belief in magic.
I now want to return to the Hempstock Family. I’m absolutely in love with the Hempstock Family as a set of characters. The Hempstock Family are fantastically feminist. They are strong independent women who get along without men. At one point during the novel our protagonist asks where all the men from the family are. Mrs. Hempstock explains that all of the men have left the household. They went off to the city and just never returned. Mrs. Hempstock, in her explanation, never becomes angry, upset, or bitter. It is just the way things are. The men left, never came back, and that is that. While quite possibly traumatic initially I love the fact that the Hempstock family gets on with their lives. They are not dependent upon men nor do they feel a need for the men to come back to the farm.
As I said before: Books are relics, icons, symbols which are representative of our time and they deserve to be talked about in addition to experienced. I look forward to hearing what you all have to say.