There is only really one word to describe this book.
Absolutely and undoubtedly, a perfect book.
Powerful, moving, honest.
A true book.
A summary of the plot here will not serve to convey its power. Go out and read this book.
In my own small way, however, here goes. The adult narrator returns to his old childhood home for one of his parents’ funeral, visits his neighbour’s farm and recalls his experiences as a seven-year old child. And, as you would expect of Gaiman, those experiences are dark, dangerous and otherworldly. His lodger’s suicide leads him to the Hemstock farm which seems itself to be part of an otherworld or an old world or a pre-reality world. Other remnants of the old world are embedded in the fabric of the farm which find their way through the narrator into the ‘real’ world. The remainder of the book revolves around the Hemstocks’ attempts to banish the remnant back to where it came from.
The Hemstocks – Lettie, her mother Ginnie and old Mrs Hemstock – seem to owe much to (or be a strange hybrid of) both a witches’ coven of maiden, mother and crone and Doctor Who. The sympathy Lettie shows the remnant, the offer to return her home before destroying her, even some of the cadences of her speech all seem to owe a debt to Gaiman’s involvement with Doctor Who. Tasting a coin to determine its age from the layout of its electrons was very Doctor Who!
Having grown up myself as a reader on the Kent-Sussex border to professional parents and having spent most of my weekends on my grandmother’s farm – on which my grandmother also lived in a caravan – the situation that Gaiman creates was very authentic and credible. The taste and texture and smell of milk drawn straight from the cow and of porridge made from it and of early morning milkings leapt from the page. The setting breathed in a way that the more stylised settings of Coraline, The Graveyard Book and Stardust – all brilliant books in their own right – and even The Doctor’s Wife and Nightmare in Silver didn’t.
It was authentic.
And the horror beneath it is all the more horrific because of that authenticity.
And there is horror here. Monsters are there to be banished. Not entirely malign but monstrous and horrific.
The most disturbing elements though, as often with Gaiman, come through the less monstrous and more familiar elements: the housekeeper who wasn’t quite what she seemed and violated the sanctity of the family; the father who tried to drown his son in the bath in possibly the most horrific and chilling scene I have ever read in a book.
These scenes are uncanny – unheimliche – in that the familiar and homely and familial becomes other. In Coraline, the other and the unheimliche was relatively safe behind a door which could be locked. In The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, the child himself becomes the door and it is his own home (his own Heim) that becomes unheimliche. His home – his place of sanctuary, his inviolable domain, his sense of family and of identity – is turned into a prison.
At its heart, in my opinion, this book is about childhood. The terrors of childhood but also its value. And the value of not knowing things and of play. Lettie Hemstock tells us that she
“used to know everything.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Everybody did. I told you. It’s nothing special knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play.”
“To play what?”
“This,” she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars”
That – and the glorious epigraph by the late lamented Maurice Sendak that “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew them. It would scare them” – puts me in mind of a conversation I once had with a fellow teacher about our children both being scared of monsters at night. “I just told them,” said the other teacher, a science teacher, “that there’s no such thing as monsters and they were being silly.” Myself, as an English teacher, I grabbed a plastic sword, leapt under the bed and slashed through the wardrobe to kill the monsters threatening my son!
Anyway, I digress.
This is a fantastic book. Everything is spot on. Everything is authentic. It is horrific, beautiful, mythic and true.
I really cannot praise this gem of a book enough!