The Ocean at the End of the Lane is two things: it’s a fantasy story about a seven year old boy who encounters some terrible, unbelievable things, as well as some wonderful, unbelievable things. It’s also a neat little ode to childhood and commentary on growing up. The unnamed narrator returns to his childhood home, which isn’t even there any longer, to attend a funeral, and finds himself taking a diversionary trip to the farm at the end of the lane. He vaguely remembers there being a pond that the girl who once lived there called an ocean, and as he begins to wonder what happened to that girl — she moved to Australia, maybe? — he is suddenly transported back, caught in a vivid, fantastic, and implausible memory.
It begins when a man commits suicide in his parents’ car, and then a bunch of other things that shouldn’t happen, do. Parts of dreams turn out to be real. That girl at the farm, Lettie Hempstock, is eleven years old, but it seems like she has been eleven for a very long time. There are travelers from other places (“fleas”) who shouldn’t have found their way here.
Guided by three generations of Hempstock women, the young narrator, with his childlike openness and imagination, accepts all of these impossible things. In his innocence, he seems to have more faith in his innate sense of wrongness, compared to his parents, who are so used to taking things at face value, trusting in their own perceived authority, and making unilateral decisions, that they don’t ever stop to question themselves. Indeed, one of the choice quotes from the book concerns how it’s not really that adults are more “right,” it’s just that they’re better at acting like they are: “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.”
When I finished this book, I was almost angry at adulthood, and I feel bad about this because this book isn’t angry, that’s just my unprovoked reaction to it, but the anger is bleeding into this review even a week later. I’m angry that the sense of wonder, of fearlessness, of curiosity, of exploration, the qualities that are inborn in us, that allow us to perceive ponds as limitless oceans, are battened down by time as adults. I’m angry that there is a culture of disdain over “doing adulthood right,” where everyone with their own idea about what that is will all too easily cast aspersions on others who are doing adulthood differently (I’m not free of this, either; I absolutely have sniffed at behavior that I personally deem immature.) For young adults in transition, confidence is actually arrogance and entitlement, because you’re young, so what do you know? Keep your head down and don’t expect too much. On the other hand, insecurity is just as bad, because now you’re a different kind of entitled, the kind that expects everyone to explain everything to you and hold your hand and why can’t you figure it out and do it on your own like I did?
The adults in this book are well-meaning but oblivious, dangerous because of autocratic inflexibility, or, in the case of the narrator, just kind of ambiguously lost and forgetful. (The older Hempstock women don’t count, because they’re not quite adults in any usual sense.) It’s not that there are no good adults, just that there are no perfect ones, and that’s certainly true to life, no? Two of the biggest tragedies of growing up was realizing that at no point was I going to know it all, and, by the same token, realizing that many of the adults I looked up to as children don’t have a secret guide to adulting, either. They still make questionable choices or have opinions that I, as an adult in my own right, do not share, and at the same time as I am equivocating in my own positions and life decisions, I can’t always look to the people who I still love, but no longer unconditionally obey.
I’m behind the curve on this one, but very glad I finally read it — or rather, had Neil Gaiman read it to me lovingly and mellifluously on the excellent audiobook — even if it gave me some uncomfortable feels. If anyone else is still putting off reading it, don’t!