Neil Gaiman has always been one of those authors who makes me feel that it would be really fun, but slightly scary and intimidating, to spend some time, maybe a day, or a couple of hours, inside of his head, making my way through the vast world of his imagination. Reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a lot like getting my wish granted; the sinister charm, childlike wonder accompanied by the dreaded shadow of impending adulthood, and the magic so heavily associated with his works are all present in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Within the charm, ecstasy, and magic, you’ll find a sort of cautionary tale which can leave you feeling depressed, but push you in a direction to make some choices to alleviate said depression, if you take the initiative.

In a literary style that you will also find in famous tales such as The Arabian Nights, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales, this book functions as a sort of “framed story”, or a “story within a story”, with the frame being a sullen, depressed, middle-aged English man leading a rather garden-variety life, returning to a childhood home in order to attend a funeral. He wanders over to his childhood home, since demolished to make way for tract housing, and is drawn to Hempstock Farm, a place which was the cornerstone of many strange occurrences in the man’s childhood that all come flooding back to him as he reminisces. It’s in his memory that the “true” story occurs, and what a story it is!

Gaiman fans will be reminded of Coraline, a veddy veddy typically British home (this time a farm house, rather than a flat) being the site of a variety of spooky, supernatural occurrences, with the focal point of the fright being, like the Other Mother of Coraline, a female adult authority figure who exercises frightening control not only over the young boy, but his entire family and his community. The only sanctuary is Hempstock Farm, which is also connected to how the sinister being arrived in the boy’s world in the first place, but is also his only chance at sending the force back from whence it came.

I could spend all day talking about the Hempstock women. There’s Old Mrs. Hempstock, old enough to remember when the moon first came into being, Younger Mrs. Hempstock, her daughter, and Lettie Hempstock, the granddaughter/daughter, who is friends with our boy narrator and shows him around not only the world of her farm, but worlds that exist beyond it. Lettie is brave, calm, resourceful, adventurous, and is the true “heart” of the novel. We ordinary mortals, through the eyes of our bland, unremarkable, somewhat sullen narrator, get a privileged view of these remarkable, supernatural women. Everything is more sumptuous, more interesting, more real and yet not, on Hempstock Farm. One of the ways this truly came through to me, as a big foodie, was the descriptions of food at Hempstock Farm. Warm milk and cream fresh from the cows, honeycomb lumps, whole feasts of warm, savoury, delicious, filling foods which left me wanting more and more. Simple country fare, but nectar and ambrosia as well, reflecting the larger nature of the Hempstock women as these supernatural beings who nonetheless carry on lives as simple English country farmers.

The exact nature and purpose (if there is one) of the Hempstocks is never explained fully, and it’s said that there are male Hempstocks as well, but they are prone to flightiness and often go out in the world, meaning that there are also part-Hempstock mortal children running about, a concept which delighted me. Without spoiling the book, it is through one of the Hempstocks that the boy learns just how precious his life can be, and what a gift it truly is, which he should not ever waste or let be spent on the dull and unfulfilling. We leave the story there, returning to the frame, and see him, unhappy, with not much to show for his life. In light of what we just learned about the price that was paid for his life to be what it was, it takes on a depressing tone, I was almost tempted to not finish.

But I did, and I put down the book with a greater resolution to get more out of my life, create, and make it worthwhile. When I first finished this book, before I had fully formed my thoughts, I compared the experience of reading it to my various experimentations with MDMA. It starts off simple enough, then you are pulled into something incredible, euphoric, and perception-altering, which has to end eventually, alas, leaving you with the comedown, which can be disorienting, depressing, and leave you with a lot of questions about yourself, your life, and where you belong in the grand scheme of it all. I stand by that comparison. Approach The Ocean at the End of the Lane with a preparation to be amazed, but also to not let the amazement go away once you’ve put the book down. That’s not what the intention is here. There’s something in here that will call you to create and keep up the marvel once the story’s finished.

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