Don’t get me wrong – I like death, but death has limits and needs reasons. Without motive and a ground work, death is no more interesting than a flat tire or a carnival that closes early because the rains arrived. As goes for death, the same goes for the paranormal, demonic, and unexplained things that haunt or frighten children when the adults are out of the room. These are the things that did not work in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. Film rights were purchased by Tom Hanks and Joe Wright, who directed Atonement (boring), Hanna (very good) and is currently directing Pan (unnecessary) which is yet another film adaptation of Peter Pan.
What was unexpectedly positive about Ocean was it having been written not for children or young adults, as most of Gaiman’s other books, but for adults, on whom he comments have lost their ability to enjoy a good story. Sure, when you find a story about a babysitter who appears, disappears, reappears, and may have the power to rip you to shreds, you expect it’s for a YA crowd. However, when the same babysitter is lifting her skirt for someone she should not, we’re entering a whole new arena, and you can be sure I’m interested. As for adults being unable to enjoy a good story, that depends on how well the story has been written.
As in many stories aimed at this age, we have an unliked (different than disliked) boy who is not surprised when his birthday party is attended by only his family. The boy, like many main characters of these books, is not liked by others. I often wonder if many others have realized why these unliked children are main characters of what we read.
I don’t claim to be super-intuitive, but it seems rather obvious that most readers are lonely, unliked people, so to create main characters equally unliked is to cater perfectly to those people who do the most reading, so those holding the books can say, “Wow, that kid is just like me. I can’t wait to see how he/she handles this, because maybe I will learn how to deal with – or escape from – my similar issues.” But I should expect everyone knows this, and I’m just as regular as the rest of them. Moving on then.
The book opens with the unliked – and unnamed – boy as an adult who had been attending a funeral but felt the urge to leave and visit his childhood home where he lived with his sister, mother, and father. It was a modest home along a country lane where lived people, like the boy’s family, who mainly wished they had a little more money. The man then visits not his own home but the one at the end of the lane where lived an unusual girl, Lettie Hempstock. The boy, now a man, recalls a pond behind the Hempstock home, finds it, and relaxes on a bench overlooking it. Mrs. Hempstock brings the man some lunch, which allows him to sit a little more comfortably and drift into a memory of which the man is not quite certain but, with the help of Lettie’s mother, becomes more certain. The man, reminiscing of when he was a boy, begins the story here…
All is well enough in the unnamed and unliked boy’s home until the day his father announces some financial difficulty and changes are coming. The most important change is mother going back to work and the boy’s room to be rented out so that he now shares a room with his sister. The first boarder is a benign older man who once mined opal’s in India. All is well until he commits suicide in the back seat of the father’s car. Somehow, this suicide opens a portal to a very nearby world of disturbing creatures, specifically a wormlike one that lodges itself into the boy’s foot in order to go home with him.
This wormlike thing then manifests into something witchlike named Ursula Monkton, a pretty enough girl who becomes the new babysitter for the boy and his sister. She enjoys bringing people things they like, such as money, which she delivers in the form coins stuffed in people’s throats as they sleep. Also in the bringing people what they want department is inappropriately lifting her skirt in front of the boy’s father, but the boy is too young to understand what that is all about. Fortunately, for my entertainment, I am not too young, but this isn’t my story.
The boy is certain that Ursula hates him and plans to ruin their family, evidence being the skirt lifting and the usual practice of locking the boy in his room. When Ursula appears to have some kind of mind control on the father and commands him to harm the boy, the danger is even more certain. He runs off into the night where nearly collides with Ursula in a rainy field, not realizing he is actually on the extended land of the Hempstocks. The boy is now certain something is “wrong” because he had just seen her in the house when he ran away, yet here she is waiting for him. Not just waiting but floating above the ground. That’s when Lettie appears.
Although she seems just a school-age girl, Lettie has no fear of Ursula and commands her to leave her property. Despite Ursula’s threats of great destruction, Lettie stands her ground and the floating witch backs off, leaving the boy to wonder what the hell is going on. Lettie takes the boy to her home where he meets Mrs. Hempstock, who gives the boy a hot bath and food before returning him to his home, where they know Ursula will be lurking.
The rest of the story is filled with small battles lost and won by both sides with other creatures not clearly defined and powers not clearly explained. It is very common and disappointing when characters have powers but we never know what or why. That makes it a little too convenient when birdlike things are aggressively eating trees, the ground, and a fox, leaving holes in existence as if the earth were cut open with scissors, but then it is all too easily stopped by a girl in clunky rain boots. One could tell me I need to do a better job of suspending belief. But then I could also tell authors they need to do a better job of convincing me to suspend my belief. It would not hurt to toss in a little explanation of where Ursula had come from, why she had come, and why the Hempstocks had greater powers than the witch.
At least the story did not end with the boy, now a man, wondering if his memories of Ursula, Lettie, and the hunger birds that ate everything were just his imagination. The story asserts in his world it was real, but in my world it was disappointing. For The Ocean at the End of the Lane to be awarded Book of the Year by The Guardian seems a case of the Emperor’s new clothes due to Gaiman’s success with other books like Coraline and The Graveyard Book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Sometimes one’s reputation is enough for people to go along for the ride without realizing they didn’t really go anywhere.
Teacher gives it a B-.
I enjoyed the idea of a fantasy for adults, but even fantasies need to occasionally stand on a little solid ground instead of just clouds and whispers.