Me, Neil Gaiman, and Jamie Byng (of Canongate and World Book Night) looking suitably dark and moody. Photo credit (c) Toby Madden
Sometime in the late hours of the night/early hours of this morning, I finished Neil Gaiman’s latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is out in June this year. (A good time for books, obviously. I’m just saying.)
After I had ‘turned’ the final electronic page (I cannot wait to have this in a physical – oh god, I almost said proper! – edition), I had this strange moment where the floodgates I’d been trying so hard to keep tightly shut, opened ever so slightly. I let in a wave of emotion I’d been struggling to contain (or at least, to put a lid on – not permanently, but just while there has been so much stuff going on that I know I just can’t deal with right now…), and I sat on the sofa in my darkened living room trying to orient myself back in the real world. Oh yes, here is my mug of tea – gone stone cold. Oh look, there is my laptop – abandoned. Oh wow, is that the time?
I’d been held in the book’s grip for most of the night, shut away in the story and in that place where nothing and no one can reach me to break the spell. (Only ‘The End’ has that power). It felt strange, and cathartic, and affecting… and for a while I remembered what truly great books can do to a person. Or, more specifically, what a great book can do to me.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane arrived with me at the right time. That is to say, a time when I’ve been thinking a lot about oceans. There’s my workload and to-do list, which feel ocean-wide and ocean-deep. There’s the ocean of books out there that soon the tiny drop of water that is my book will be diving in to, and the fear that it will make barely a ripple – let alone something resembling a wave. There’s the literal ocean, that big one to the west of me, the one that separates me from my family and makes me feel so far away from some of the people and places that I love. The imminent reality of having several oceans separating me from my sister, who is planning that big jump to the land down under. And then there’s the ever-present desire to pack it all in and sail away on an ocean for a while, journal and pen in hand…
Even though I know all these oceans can be navigated, they still feel like they dominate my world.
The ocean in Neil’s book doesn’t seem like much more than a pond at first glance. But of course, it is far more than that. The ocean belongs to the land of the mysterious Hempstocks – three generations of women, all living together on a farm. There is a strong sense of nostalgia to the England portrayed in the book that reminds me of my dad’s stories of growing up in Nutfield, Surrey, on acres of land where you had to walk to school through muddy fields, before large farms made way for housing developments and villages gave way to towns. The food served at the Hempstock farm is the kind of warm, cosy cooking I am served from my aunt’s Aga – shepherd’s pie with fluffy mash and rich mince, spotted dick with lashings of homemade custard, thick slices of bread toasted between wire mesh and covered in butter and jam. Ever-present is Neil’s wonderful interplay with language, and sentences you want to cherish forever.
Ocean is an intensely personal book – even more than just in terms of how much Neil drew on his own experiences to shape it. It’s the type of book that has the power to affect each reader differently. For me, at least, it opened up a vast well of memories of being a child and discovering things that adults never could – some of them terrifying, most of them wondrous. While I never came across a pond that was actually an ocean, I remember believing that the hollows in old, gnarled oak trees in Richmond Park were the doorways to Another World, and that if I climbed high enough the branches would allow me to reach the place beyond the clouds. It also reminded me of the monsters of my childhood imagination – and how the monsters that don’t look like monsters, but look more like people, are actually the scariest of all.
But returning to the late hours of last night, the resounding sense of finishing Ocean was of wanting to dive straight back in and start reading it all over again. Because as terrifying and overwhelming and vast an ocean can be, they can also be restorative, and healing. They can remind you of the awe that exists in the world and that it’s okay to be swept away in it for a while, even as it’s equally okay to come back. And sometimes – if you try hard enough – you can fit that ocean into a bucket and carry it with you, so that maybe the weight of all that water won’t seem so heavy after all.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane