Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

How do childhood memories affect our adult selves? That is the question at the heart of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a novel that is about childhood, though not necessarily written for children. The novel opens with the protagonist returning to his childhood home following on from the funeral of his parents. He finds himself inexplicably drawn to the house next door. Settling there for a while with his elderly former neighbour, he begins to recall a long-forgotten adventure that has helped to shape his entire life.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantasy story, about a boy who unintentionally becomes a gateway for something rather otherworldly to join his world, and who is helped by the older girl next door and her mother and grandmother, who know exactly what needs to be done and how to keep him safe, in spite of the insidious creature who wants to use him. On the flip side, it is also the story of a seven year old boy who is just trying to survive in the face of untrustworthy adults, and his parents who have forgotten what it is like to be a child and just how much bigger and stronger they are. Although the boy's story was nothing like my own childhood (after all, I grew up in a different era, in a different part of the world,) there was a familiarity to some of the injustices he experienced--in particular there is a line in the book where he asks an adult if it makes them feel big to make a little boy cry. (Something that, sadly, we all experience at one time or another.) 

However, where the book really shines is in its example of how, and perhaps why, children are not believed when they are telling the absolutely truth, and how abusers get away with their behaviour. In one part of the book, new boarder Ursula carefully befriends and manipulates the rest of the family, while isolating the protagonist from anyone who can possibly help him. And then his father is basically brainwashed into causing further harm. It is a chilling parallel to what happens to real life victims of many different types of abuse. 

There are also some wonderful moments, the novel highlights the kindness of the women who help him, and the huge sacrifice that Lottie makes in order to keep her friend safe. (And something that she does because she knows that it is right.) It also highlights the joy that children take in little things--the arrival of a new kitten for example, or the little yellow sink in the bedroom that was installed just for the protagonist. 

Overall, this is a well written fantasy novel and a deep exploration of childhood memories, and how they shape us--even if they are easily forgotten.

Highly recommended. 

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