‘Adult stories never made sense,” says the narrator in Neil Gaiman’s novel “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” “They made me feel like they were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?”
Because, moms and dads are from planet Earth. Kids are from Neverland.
The story straddles the twinned worlds of adult narrative and boyish fantasy AND IN FACT IS SET IN THE KIND OF PLACE WHERE THE TWO CAN MEET — THINK C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe. The slim novel, Gaiman’s first book for adults since 2005’s “Anansi Boys,” traffics in childhood fears and primal forces the way the Brothers Grimm did. Only, in Gaiman’s universe, the forces of childhood and adulthood are locked in mortal combat.
The story begins in adult land. Our nameless English narrator, mired in a divorced and middle-age place, is fresh from a funeral. He finds himself searching out “the little country lane of my childhood,” now “a black tarmac road that served as a buffer between two sprawling housing estates” yet still a place where “[m]emories were waiting at the edges of things.” We are then launched into reverie — once again 7 years old, the narrator evokes the Sussex of the 1960s, a world of cobblestones and coal, tin soldiers and marbles, barnyards and back sheds and fairy rings.
Like many of Gaiman’s heroes, the narrator is an outcast and nerd-in-training. He finds solace in stories. “Books were safer than other people,” he says. Immersed in a book, he can be happy in “some part of my head . . . even while the rest of my head was filled with fear.” The boy has reason to worry. Not just the monsters under the bed troubles, but the adult variety, too. Strapped for cash, Mom and Dad take in a succession of lodgers, displacing the boy from his bedroom. When the latest lodger kills himself in the family’s car, strange stuff happens. The boy coughs up a coin. He meets an older neighborhood girl, Lettie,who might be a witch. They encounter a giant, talking tent-like creature in a field. And more unexplained phenomena.
Yet, oddly, the kid says nothing to his parents. Like in other Gaiman tales, child heroes fend for themselves. From “The Graveyard Book” to “Coraline” to “Odd and the Frost Giants,” boy and girl protagonists are abandoned. “I do not remember asking adults about anything,” says our boy in “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” “except as a last resort.” No wonder: Parents don’t listen to their kids, or believe them.
The book’s most unsettling moment comes with the arrival of the new lodger, a nanny named Ursula Monkton, a mother-replacement monster figure who threatens not only the Mom-and-Dad bond, but the entire middle-class English way of life. “ ‘Your parents can no longer afford this place,’ ” she snarls. “ ‘Then all of this’ — and this was the tangle of brambles, the unkempt world behind the lawn — ‘will become a dozen identical houses and gardens. And if you are lucky, you’ll get to live in one.’ ’’ Her presence is chilling.
Yet, as the everyday increasingly intersects with supernatural, too much symbol and metaphor begin to ricochet inside this little FAIRY TALE. We get worms and wormholes and witch-like maternal figures that can stitch up time. A pond that’s an ocean becomes a bucket of water into which the boy can step and swim and suddenly know “everything” — “where the universe began” and “the peculiar crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang.” Really? A 7-year-old can imagine and articulate these cosmic notions?
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” packs its punch not in the confrontations with dark, magical forces, but when Gaiman grounds the story in character and emotion. Had he pulled back more from the “universe in a bucket” mumbo jumbo, a more poignant, modern fable of childhood insecurity could have emerged.
Gaiman truly excels when he lets his kid be a kid and observes the boy’s weird dream logic. How the boy imports the supernatural into his life to explain things he cannot fathom. How, angst about family morphs into fantasies OF Dad murdering him. How a cut in one’s foot might be a home for a creepy, otherworldly worm. How a kid invents a fearful backstory for how that monstrous nanny entered his life. “She was a cardboard mask for the thing that has traveled inside me as worm.” That “thing” being, the horror that every child feels when “[t]he future had suddenly become unknowable.”
It’s grim and terrifying, this growing up. “How can you be happy in this world?” Gaiman asks toward his novel’s end, when you are always “questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life.”
Worthy questions. If only Gaiman’s story provided a simpler scaffolding with which to contemplate the answers.