It says much about Neil Gaiman’s writing that the first night I read 50 pages of his 2013 novel ‘The Ocean at the End Of the Lane’, I had a nightmare about a half man, half lizard repeatedly attacking me. No – there isn’t a lizard man in Gaiman’s novel but it certainly has some creepy characters and a chilling atmosphere. Gaiman is well known for creating other worlds that are unsettling, particularly in that they are inverting the concepts of our own world. Much of his work is seen through the eyes of a child protagonist or narrator, but the novels don’t feel like they are written for children or young adults. In this best-selling novel, the narrator is unnamed: a man who has come back to his childhood home for a funeral, and takes us back with him in time to age seven to remember the strange events that took place. The narrator lived on a rambling estate with his parents and his younger sister, who were completely normal. In this Gaiman novel, unlike his other best-seller Coraline where the parents were monsters, it is the neighbours and his new nanny who are the unusual element. On a farm next to the narrator’s home, three females (the Hempstocks) welcome him into their lives: young Lettie, eleven years old, and two older ladies who appear to be her mother and grandmother. The Hempstocks are soon revealed to possess strange abilities to transverse space and time: the narrator is taken into what seems another dimension by holding Lettie’s hand, and happens to pull back with him the monster of Ursula who becomes his nanny. Writing a synopsis of the novel makes it seem very simple, but it’s Gaiman’s imagination, and ability to create unsettling tension that makes his writing so popular, and evocative. And while the images are nightmarish, the characters have a quaintness that relieves the reader from the heavier material. The Hempstocks with their old style, rustic goodness are beautifully drawn, and the reader is made to feel as safe as the narrator when in their company. Lettie in particular with her adult wisdom is a charming character:
“Oh, monsters are scared," said Lettie. "That's why they're monsters. And as for grown-ups...' She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, 'I'm going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.””
Likewise to Lettie’s wise adult voice, the narrator’s adult-remembering-childhood perspective is melancholic and insightful: “I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled.”
To analyse this short novel any further would give too much away, but I would recommend dipping into Gaiman’s imaginary world: beware dreaming of lizard men at your own peril.