A Review of
The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel
Reviewed by Gary Wake
Neil Gaiman doesn’t feel the need to explain the rules that guide the worlds he creates in his stories. The ocean from The Ocean at the End of the Lane is only the size of a pond, and like the father in the novel, readers know that oceans can’t be the size of a pond. After all, “Ponds are pond-sized, lakes are lake-sized. Seas are seas and oceans are oceans.” Of course, in Gaiman’s novel, nothing is really as simple as that.
The main action of The Ocean at the End of the Lane takes place around this ocean that looks like a pond. The story starts with the main character, an unnamed man, going back to this place where he spent part of his childhood. He has been at a funeral, he has delivered a eulogy, and he is in a suit, “wearing the right clothes for a hard day.” He stands at the pond and thinks back on the events that took place decades before.
The man, then a 7 year old bookish boy, experiences a strange series of events that begin when a boarder in his home commits suicide. While his father talks to police about the boarder, the boy meets some extraordinary women who live on a farm near his house. They seem to have special knowledge about the suicide and the area around the farm. The women, unlike the protagonist, have names. The boy’s first encounter is with Ginnie Hempstock, who appears to be 11. Her mother is Lettie Hempstock, and Lettie’s mother is Old Mrs. Hempstock. They are not witches, or at least they claim not to be, but they have magical abilities, and they use them to protect the boy and their part of the world.
The boy accompanies Ginnie on a task meant to resolve some of the unusual things going on in their area. The suicide was only one of the odd things happening, and Ginnie plans to set things right. While engaged in a battle with an evil being, the boy falters and as a result the creature makes a personal appearance in his world, in the guise of a nanny named Ursula Monkton.
Nothing good can come of a nanny named Ursula Monkton. She is a sort of reverse Mary Poppins, a nanny who shows up when a family is having trouble with the sole purpose of magnifying and exacerbating that trouble. Stories with unusual nannies are not uncommon, but this is a particularly bad nanny who charms all of the boy’s family, even while the boy sees her for exactly who she is.
The Hempstocks also know who Ursula is, and will not let this evil thrive. They are willing to do what it takes to protect the boy and repair the damage Ursula has committed. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was originally conceived as a short story, and certainly there are more parts of this world that readers might like to see. At less than 200 pages, it’s a small book, but the story is deeper than it seems.