The Ocean at the End of the Lane
“There is no psychology in a fairy tale,” Philip Pullman wrote in the introduction to his Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. “The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious.” Neil Gaiman’s latest, marketed to adults though it’s of a piece with his books for younger readers (like Coraline and The Graveyard Book), reads story-wise like a fairy tale: there are benevolent witches, sinister sylvan spirits, and an evil nanny as the archetypal wicked stepmother. But there’s also a good deal of the interiority that classic fairy tales lack— which is what lends them much of their universality and timelessness. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is old-fashioned, but it’s also of the moment.
In it, a boy’s rather straightforward rural English childhood transforms, within 30 pages, into something surreal, supernatural, nightmarish and fantastical—that is, something Gaimanesque. A suicide unleashes a spirit that wants to make everyone happy by giving them money, but it’s doing a bad job of it. (Like, it puts a wad of cash in a woman’s purse, which makes her husband think she’s been prostituting herself.) With the help of a local girl, Lettie Hempstock, plus her mother and grandmother (all of whom are ageless), the boy expels this monster only to create a new one, Ursula Monkton, also committed to making people happy and in the process ruining more lives.
This is a coming-of-age novel about an allegorical struggle between children and adults. “Lettie was just a girl, even if she was a big girl, even if she was eleven, even if she had been eleven for a long time,” Gaiman writes. “Ursula Monkton was an adult. It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win.” Of course, this isn’t strictly true; as in a classic fairy tale, the good guy wins, the child achieving his first taste of adulthood—and, through victory, of an identity separate from his parents.
But this victory doesn’t come without consequences. Ocean is marketed to adults because, for starters, Gaiman pens a pair of poignant bookending chapters from the point-of-view of the boy all grown up, touching on the undependable nature of memory, how we measure up as adults—whether we’ve done anything meaningful with our lives. Also, his villains’ good intentions complicate the genre’s easy morality. But mostly it’s because the book is dark and violent: Gaiman kills off a kitten, he kills off central characters, he includes unsettling scenes of observed extramarital sex and a father attacking his son. That is, he writes like a Grimm brother, exposing the dark sides of childhood from which nowadays we try to protect kids. It was Viking that published Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm Fairy Tales—not Viking Children’s Books.