A review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it’s relationship to other stories by Neil Gaiman, and the trauma of fantasy.
All great fantasies are formed in response to experience. And often, the experience of trauma.
J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings takes us in to a fantasy world of elves and dragons, but it’s the depthless grief of a young man who experienced the first World War that gives the work its sombre magnificence. Tolkien signed up with twenty friends and was the only one to return from the trenches. He was a rare survivor of a lost generation, one that never truly recovered from the trauma of Passchendaele and the Somme, just as young Frodo Baggins never recovers from the trauma of carrying the One Ring to Mordor.
J G Ballard cast his fantasies in the language of science fiction, depicting one shattered urban landscape after another in novels from The Drowned World to Crash, Concrete Island and Highrise. But it was with the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1984 that Ballard’s fantasy life returned, with crystal clear insight, to reality. Ballard’s childhood was shattered by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in World War 2, his separation for his parents and internment in a prisoner of war camp, from where he observed the swift collapse in to barbarity of the middle class English society he had grown up in. A collapse his novels recreated again and again in fantasy.
From Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and it’s satire on the crushing oppression of the British class system, to the orphaned children of Diana Wynne Jones that reflect their creator’s own turbulent childhood, great fantasy writing always has its roots in the real. And like Ballard, great fantasy writers are often at their best when they return to the reality that shaped them.
Fathers are very important in the writing of Neil Gaiman. The Sandman comics that catapulted Gaiman to cult status begin with a father inducting his son in to the mysteries of the occult, and a secret ritual to summon and entrap Morpheus of the Endless. Decades later Morpheus escapes, and the son is left trapped in endless dreams of waking. The unfolding story arc of The Sandman turns on Morpheus’ relationship with his own son, Orpheus. Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods, is adrift in the badlands of America when he is drawn in to the mystical plots of Mr Wednesday, soon revealed as the Norse god Odin, and then later as Shadow’s long absent father. Anansi Boys also features a young man attempting to come to terms with the legacy of a father who is also a god. It seems that time and again Gaiman’s fantasies return to the relationship of a son to a powerful, and often mystical, father figure.
The father in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from powerful or mystical. He is in fact quite ordinary and flawed. Neil Gaiman’s first novel for adults since Anansi Boys brings him closer than any other previous work to directly exploring the paternal relationship that has influenced so much of his writing. The directly autobiographical aspect pulls the story in a literary direction that, rightly or wrongly, his earlier fiction has not been recognised for. And it leaves the reader guessing, what in the novel is imagined, and what is the author’s true experience?
The novel’s narrator recounts a series of horrific events from a childhood spent in a large family house at the end of a long contry lane. The young boy’s life with sister, mother and father is mundane in its joys and tensions, until the suicide of the family’s lodger unleashes a series of supernatural manifestations. These are complicated by the Hempstocks, a neighboring family of grandmother, mother and daughter who have lived around those parts for raaaather a long time. Trinities of women are another of Neil Gaiman’s repeat motifs, but with the Hempstocks he grants them a far more central, and humane identity than in previous manifestations. A hike in to a weird and alien environment ensues, and an ancient evil is unleashed.
The real horror in The Ocean at the End of the Lane arrives in the form of a young woman, Ursula Monkton. Employed as an au-pair for the boy and his sister, it is soon clear that Miss Monkton and her short skirts are not all they appear to be. But it is Ursula’s effect on the boy’s father that ushers in the true darkness at the heart of the book. For all its otherworldly fantasy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple and brutally told story of the trauma children face when confronted with the frailties of their own parents. The graphic sexuality and violence that errupt at key points in the story mean that, despite surface similarities to earlier children’s stories like Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a book for children. It is however a book that will resonate powerfully with anyone attempting to process the darker aspects of their own childhood. And in an age when childhood ends early, and often brutally, that makes it a book for almost everyone.
The narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as an older man looking back, recounts these events to us the reader in part as an attempt to understand them himself. The after effects of encounters with the supernatural, and of emotional trauma, are another central theme of Gaiman’s writing. The young Rose Walker, at the conclusion of The Doll’s House, retreats for months in to solitude to consider her encounter with both dreams and nightmares in the realm of Morpheus the Dream King. There is an aspect in all of Neil Gaiman’s fiction that is permanently at war with mundane reality and our experience of it. His early writing, on projects such as Miracleman, and his collaborations with Dave McKean on Violent Cases, Signal to Noise and Mr Punch seem to step beyond fantasy and become active deconstructions of reality. The Ocean at the End of the Lane recaptures the conceptual energy of those earlier stories. Reason and common sense construct the narratives of our waking lives, but for the millions of readers drawn to Gaiman’s stories, the un-logic of dreams and fantasy are just as valid a way of understanding life, the universe, and everything.
Of all the writers creating literature today, Neil Gaiman is arguably the greatest at articulating that fantastical nature of reality. Inevitably, given the massive publicity surrounding its author and this this his latest work, some will ask if The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as a work of fantasy, can also be a work of literature. Increasingly, it is a question fading in to the oblivion of irrelevance. Like all great writers, Neil Gaiman is not constraining his vision to pre-definied notions of genre or literature. Instead, through his contribution to literature, he is redefining its boundaries to include our inner worlds of dreams and fantasy as essential ways of seeing our reality.