I just finished Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean and the End of the Lane” for the second time. And I am left wishing that I could un-remember it as the protagonist does in the story. This is just about as high-praise as I can give. I want to forget the whole thing so that I can live through it anew once more. I want to walk down the lane and through the fields of memory and hold Lettie Hempstock’s hand again. I want to encounter the loathsome and sensuous Ursula Monkton again and see her meet her match. I want to see goodness and light. I want that all again for the first time.
Both times I visited this world, it was through the audio-book version. Gaiman’s measured and melodic cadence of voice smoothly unshackles ones imagination. If he tells me that there are two moons in the sky – well, then, haven’t there always been? I’ve listened to a lot of books during my work commute and I know how a reader can make or break a text. He is completely comfortable in portraying a range of characters and masterfully handles dialect and accents. So right out of the gate, this is something special.
The writing is sublime. Restraint is the watchword. In a magical story like this it’s so easy to overplay a hand. To dive in too deep or paint with too much color. But Gaiman’s deft hand (and I suspect wise eyes reading drafts and offering constructive criticism) knows how to move the pieces so that we’re constantly wanting to know more about the characters. Again, one would usually see that as a fault. But really – how much do you know about anyone? Everyone has hidden depths and characters in a novel are no different. Gaiman’s characters are anything but two-dimensional. They are three or sometimes four dimensional. They move in and out of reality as naturally as setting the table.
But it is the story that shines.
There is a moment near the beginning of the book that sets the course for the remainder. In it, two children are unexpectedly faced with an overwhelming and fearful presence. All I have ever known – all I have ever read or seen tells me that the children need to get away. They need to run. Or hide. Or use some clever way to disappear or perhaps trick the evil so they can make it to the next chapter. That isn’t what happens. Instead eleven-year-old Lettie lays down the law. Unexpectedly and frankly incredibly, it becomes slowly apparent that Lettie has complete control. She has authority and dominion over this thing. It is a great scene.
And one can’t help but being left with the feeling that Lettie, her mother and grandmother are in a fashion, the Son, Spirit and Father. I don’t think Gaiman was aiming at that analogy. It just happened. The three of them are ancient and new. They milk cows and have an ocean in their pond. They see the wreck people make of their lives and nudge them in a new direction. They throw themselves between the guilty and the justice – because they are love. And those who benefit from their sacrifice can barely remember it and don’t truly appreciate its breadth even when they do remember it.
Grownups really are a lot like children as Lettie’s Gran tells the boy. They look strong and play tough. But at the end of the day – or end of their lives – they yearn to laugh and play. They desperately want to believe the unbelievable. Serious mindedness gets in the way and we forget what grass feels like between our toes. But one clear morning the façade of this world will be peeled away and we will be ourselves - true and free.