At the Burlington International Airport, on the way home after getting my MFA, I impulsively bought Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to read on the plane, never mind that I was going to go see him read at Town Hall in Seattle the very next day.
I think it was the perfect book to read on the way back from Goddard College, a place that felt a little bit like the coolest writer sleep-away camp ever and a little bit like a memory of times already past. The Ocean at the End of the Lane deals with memory, and landscape, and the terrors that childhood holds. The sense of childhood horror is well-stated in the book’s epigraph, a quote from Maurice Sendak in conversation with Art Spiegelman: “I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”
And the horrors that children know and adults try to blind themselves to is perhaps the emotional crux of this short and poignant novel. At his Town Hall talk, Gaiman explained some of the genesis of the book; he was missing his wife, Amanda Palmer, and wanted to write something for her. But she, apparently, doesn’t really like fantasy (I know, right?)…”but she likes me,” he said, “and she likes feelings. So I put some feelings in and toned down the supernatural a bit.” He also added a setting from his own Essex childhood; the picture on the back of a boy climbing on a house is a photo of Neil, Age Seven. (Although I skimmed the interior back flap too quickly and for a moment though they were describing the author photo, leaving me with the impression that NG had sprung fully formed from his mother’s forehead…) I find this novel differs from Gaiman’s other novels for adults because it has more feelings, quite frankly. He gets me right in the nostalgia. And no, my personal nostalgia does not revolve around the aftermath of a stranger’s suicide on a tiny rural English village, nor is it about a trio of maiden/mother/crone types who may or may not be an old farming family and/or supernatural entities from the dawn of time. But the sense of an adult going back and feeling intense nostalgia about childhood, both for the magic of being a child (literally, of course, here) and the terror of being a child. From a craft perspective, the first and last chapters do a brilliant job of lowering the reader into the world of the story through the layers of memory of the adult who is narrating about his childhood. This really is, as Gaiman asserts, a book for adults with a child narrator. I think it would be a fun read for a child or teen, but you wouldn’t really get the emotional punch until you were an adult, and especially an adult who had left home.
The poet David Wagoner introduced me to the lovely term psychotope, or the shape of the psyche. How hot is “hot.” How far is “far.” What “rain” looks like. And the narrator’s psychotope is clearly laid out in this novel: I could picture the mental map of this child’s world, the details of the dirt lane he lived on, the important places and things in his life. His logic, even when it seemed fantastic or illogical for the adults around him, is laid out clearly for the reader. And more importantly, I can remember when having a world map like that made sense. I found myself thinking about the five acres I grew up on in semi-rural Colorado and the intricate world of myth and magic I built for myself. (The fairies lived across the little stream in the meadow with the big Ponderosa pines, the Tolkein-style elves lived back in the mossier, darker woods, etc.) Inside my house was more a landscape of monsters, both mine and my brother’s. For him, Darth Vader lived in the basement shop behind the ominous wood-stove that provided most of our house’s winter heat. For me, the one spot just to the right of the hall that I always avoided because of an incredibly vivid dream wherein an invisible man picked me up off my feet by my collar and I just knew he was standing there day and night, biding his time. I had rituals about how fast I had to book it up the stairs (before the door to the garage, on its hissing automatic closer, closed with a final thump). I think everyone had at least one little ritual or piece of magical thinking in the landscape of their childhood home. I imagine many of them were much more terrifying than Darth Vader or the ubiquitous invisible man. I imagine for children with more real-world trauma in their lives daily, a great deal of ritual and magical thinking is put into trying to control the behavior of those adults or other children around them whose behavior cannot be controlled.
What Gaiman does so nicely in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is to take the magical thinking of childhood and conflate it elegantly with real magic. It’s a book about how hard it is to be seven. It’s also a book about family. It’s also a book with enough very real magic to feed the hungry child in all of us. You can check it out here or just go buy a copy. The hardback is really attractive. It’s got deckle edges, O Kindle users, which your Devices will not be able to accurately replicate. Just sayin’.
In the comments, please tell me a ritual or piece of magical thinking from your childhood. I’m also curious, for those of you that read it, what you thought of the book.