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Nannies and Other Nasty Creatures
Posted on March 12, 2014 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013) by Neil Gaiman
Here be spoilers.
Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins with a quote by children’s author Maurice Sendak:
“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.”
It’s very appropriate sentiment for this book, but also appropriate for whom I think Neil Gaiman is as a writer. I haven’t had a broad experience with Gaiman’s work, as this is only the third title of his I’ve read, the first being the quite excellent The Graveyard Book. But like Sendak, I think Gaiman understands childhood, and in particular why children see monsters in half-open closets when adults do not. Childhood is the time of life when, for many of us, the line between physical reality and imagined, often horrific fantasies, is particularly blurred. In my experience, only a handful of storytellers really understand this. Gaiman and Sendak are two of them. Edward Gorey and Charles Addams were probably two more, and you might also be able to add filmmakers Steven Spielbrg and JJ Abrams in there as well.
I think Gaiman must spend a great deal of his time sitting and thinking about childhood, and concocting stories which are exciting, mysterious and sometimes bone-chilling. You know, the same thing children do automatically every day of their lives. This talent certainly comes out on the pages of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a fictionalized version of Gaiman’s own childhood where he befriends a local farm girl named Lettie Hemstock and her mother and grandmother. At first blush, the Hemstocks seem like simple English country folk. They live in a farmhouse which is older than anyone can remember, and older than the Hemstocks seem willing to admit. They raise their own meat and vegetables and the grandmother, who’s referred to only as “Old Mrs. Hemstock,” bemoans modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and electricity.
The book’s protagonist is unnamed but clearly Gaiman, and he meets Lettie and her kin after a boarder living at his parents’ house commits suicide near the Hemstock farm. This strange and seemingly meaningless event gives rise to more ominous ones, especially as young Neil comes to realize that the Hemstock’s farm occupies the periphery between the tranquil English countryside and a weird and dangerous netherworld. Occasionally loathsome and horrible things try to cross this frontier and it’s the Hemstocks who intercept them and send them back to their own realm. When Neil ventures into this netherworld in Lettie’s company, one of these supernatural “fleas” hitches a ride back in the sole of his foot. Once free in the real world, the creature manifests itself as Neil and his sister’s new nanny, a pretty twenty-something called Ursula Monkton.
In Monkton, Gaiman creates a very frightening villain. Imagine someone who’s as outwardly charming as Mary Poppins, but when the parents aren’t around, is a creature who’s controlling, scheming and very cruel. Her techniques are similar to how real child abusers control and terrorize their victims. Monkton proceeds to bewitch Neil’s parents which leads to one particularly horrifying incident and the child finds himself trapped in his own home, surrounded by adults who are suddenly menacing and potentially murderous.
I didn’t enjoy The Ocean at the End of the Lane as much as The Graveyard Book which I reviewed previously, probably because the plot wasn’t as complex nor the characters as engaging. But Gaiman is definitely an author I’d read again and again. His work often reads like poetry, but there’s a certain simplicity to it which makes it accessible to a variety of audiences and ages. Like other great storytellers, Gaiman addresses lofty human themes through the eyes of ordinary folk. Young Neil is only eight-years-old, a selfish and self-possessed boy, but still one who understands right from wrong, values friendship, and strives to be kind to others. It’s also refreshing to have a book where the young protagonist is still dependent on and in need of adult help. As I noted in a recent blog, this is often missing in young adult lit where parents are conspicuously absent although this isn’t representative of most teenager’s lives.
So in the end, I’m going to recommend The Ocean at the End of the Lane and re-recommend The Graveyard Book. I’ll look forward to Gaiman’s next novel, as well.