A Walk Down Memory “Lane”
A review of Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” This review first appeared on E. Branden Hart’s website, Audience of Shadows.
When I was 13 or 14, my dad and I drove to a comic book store in Dallas where Neil Gaiman was signing books. At the time, Mr. Gaiman was perhaps best known for his riveting biography of British rock band Duran Duran and a little comic he was writing called “Sandman.” At some point, I’ll write another post about why “Sandman” is one of the most important things that anybody did in the 20th century, but for the purposes of this post, you just need to know that when my dad and I went to the signing, I had brought my copy of Sandman #18: A Dream of a Thousand Cats.
At the time, it was the only Sandman story I’d ever read, but I’d read it dozens of times. It is a magical story, and it changed not only the way I looked at my relationship with animals, but the way I looked at writing in general. Not used to being in the presence of celebrity, I nervously approached the table where Mr. Gaiman was signing and handed him my book.
“Hi there,” he said as he took the comic from me. “Oh, I do like this story. So, do you like cats?”
I scrunched up my nose. “No, I hate cats,” I said with no small amount of disgust. “I like dogs. But this is a really good story.”
He smiled, uncapped his gold paint pen, placed two small gold dots on the eyes of the cat on the cover and signed his name below. He handed the book back to me, said, “Keep reading,” and then turned to my father, who had brought his own copy of issue #19: the World Fantasy Award-winning “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
On our way home that night, my dad started chuckling to himself. When I asked him what was so funny, he said, “I can’t believe you told Neil Gaiman you hate cats. He loves cats.”
Fortunately, I understand that Mr. Gaiman has since come around to the joy of canine companionship, but what hasn’t changed is his ability to write compelling, magical fiction that makes you long for things that don’t exist—or, in the case of his new novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” things that you’ve forgotten.
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” published by William Morrow (an imprint of Harper Collins), is, at its heart, a eulogy for the loss of youth. In the story, the nameless narrator goes back to his childhood neighborhood and finds himself at the house of a strange trio of women—a house where he knows something important and significant happened to him as a child. The story unfolds as he sits by the “ocean,” which is a small pond in the middle of a field, and remembers.
I’m not going to tell you what he remembers. It’s standard Gaiman fare—there’s magic, and evil, and a protagonist who doesn’t really understand it all, and a hero who has to make a sacrifice. And while those aspects of the story are great and I loved them, they aren’t what’s most important.
What’s most important—and the whole point of the book—is that it makes you mourn for your own lost childhood. I’m not talking about the loss of innocence in the traditional sense: this isn’t a story about someone losing their virginity, or finding out that the world is a shitty place after all, or facing the fact that they aren’t going to be able to realize their dreams. This is a story about forgetting, and how sometimes the worst thing about growing up isn’t that we lose the magic of childhood—it’s that we forget that magic entirely.
When I finished the novel, I didn’t know how to feel. Part of me wanted to be happy, to be hopeful that things would turn out okay for the characters. But if I’m honest with myself, the book doesn’t end on a hopeful note at all. Without revealing anything about the plot, I can say that the novel begs the question: what is a memory worth? And what is the value of something if you forget that it ever happened? Not the most hopeful of questions—but interesting questions to ponder nonetheless.
Did I enjoy the novel? Absolutely. “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is a wonderful fairy tale, and I would recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed Mr. Gaiman’s previous work. Despite the somewhat bleak philosophical implications, it is a very enjoyable novel that is also very much about friendship and the mystery of childhood. But it also forces you to face the fact, whether you like it or not, that some of the most magical moments in your own childhood might be lost to you forever. Which, at the end of the day, should compel all of us to create magical moments as adults—something that’s sometimes easier said than done.