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Book Club Reflection: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

22 Jun

For someone who’s such a big Harry Potter fan, I’m coming to realize I’m not a big into fantasy. While I enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I wasn’t blown away and it didn’t make me want to read every word he’s ever written. That being said, I’m glad there are people who loved this book and I’m glad a few of them were at my book club meeting because I think I appreciate the book more now with the fantasy fan perspective.

For those of us that didn’t enjoy it, many of gave the reason of feeling like this was a children’s novel. Gaiman has made it very clear that he sees this as a book for adults. He’s quoted as saying,

“I thought — it’s really not a kids’ story — and one of the biggest reasons it’s not a kids’ story is, I feel that good kids’ stories are all about hope. In the case of Ocean at the End of the Lane, it’s a book about helplessness. It’s a book about family, it’s a book about being 7 in a world of people who are bigger than you, and more dangerous, and stepping into territory that you don’t entirely understand.” (NPR Interview)

Despite this, it still read like a children’s novel at times and those of us who hadn’t read Gaiman before felt it wasn’t the best introduction to him as an author.

Regardless of the above complaints, the book was a fast read and we were all sucked into it for that. Many of the things that happened to our narrator happened to Gaiman. He grew up in the 1960s and he had a neighbor commit suicide in a car near his home. We wondered if this is a story he made up for himself at the time to cope with something traumatic happening to him. I remember doing this as a child to make bad situations less stressful. Maybe his dad did have an affair with his nanny and imagining her as a magical creature made it easier to cope with.

If we think about it, Gaiman is likely the narrator. No one in the family is ever named even though all the secondary characters had names. We never know whose funeral he is coming back for though we know the sister is involved. (We think it’s the father.) So can we assume that the birthday party no one came to was real? From what our Gaiman loves knew about him, he was the bookish child described in the story. He is the type who would want a book on his birthday cake. Having no one show up to your birthday party is a little odd only because his parents were not aware that something like this would happen. Why wouldn’t they know the boy’s friends’ parents? If there’s a reason the friends’ parents didn’t want their children to attend the party, are the boy’s parents at fault? I don’t know too much about Gaiman’s family life, but I wonder if this is the case.

The boy was a very fearful person. It’s not weird for children to be afraid of the dark, but the extreme measure to which the boy went made a few of us question how it would affect him later in life. We see that as a middle-aged man he’s afraid that his life isn’t good enough. Lettie died for him to live and he’s scared that his life isn’t good enough or worthy of that sacrifice. But isn’t every life worth a sacrifice?

One of our discussion questions asked us why he was chosen for the adventures in this book. We had two schools of thought. The first was that he was special because of his bookish tendencies and imagination. The Hempstock’s needed someone who could believe in unbelievable things and there was no way an adult could do that. The second idea is that he made them up to cope with something traumatic in his life and if you make up magical creatures, they’re going to like you. No one would make up magical creatures that don’t like you. It was part of a game he was playing with himself.

Ursula was a great villain for this book. She kept us reading when a few of us were starting to doubt the book. She, like most villains, didn’t see herself as evil; she gave people what they wanted. The mother wanted meaning and work, she got it. The father might have wanted passion, which she also provided. Maybe he wanted a son who was more athletic and less passive so drowning him in the bathtub was something he wanted. Ursula was just trying to help.

We were all fascinated at the idea of Ursula being a work in his foot. Though we were a bit surprised he didn’t go to his parents about it. You would think a medical concern like that would warrant parental attention. The stereotype of British parents as standoffish and removed was only reinforced here.

Ignoring Gaiman’s earlier quote, we asked ourselves if the ending was positive or negative. We had one vote for positive, which was that the boy seemed to have some closure with his father, even if it’s after (what we think was) his death. The rest of the votes were for negative and very antichildren’s story. Lettie is checking up on him and will never forget the price she paid for him to live. And he never seems to live up to that potential and will continue to forget the sacrifice she paid for him. Talk about a downer.

I asked the group why the Hempstocks were all women. Why weren’t the men powerful? It goes back to mythology, I’m told, to a trope of the maid, the mother, and the crone. In Greek mythology, it was Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate. The three are indicative of a woman’s lifespan and represent all women. Plus, women are more caring for the poor boy and they talk more, which helps move a plot.

So what was this book about? We think a quote from page 112 says it well. Appropriately, these words come from Lettie’s mouth.

“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not a one in the whole wide world.”

Adults are no different from children. They have no more knowledge or confidence than our young narrator has. All that’s different is that they’ve lost the ability to look at the world with an open mind. This book was to help us remember when we saw the magic in this world and how wonderful it was.

Our book club is taking the summer off and will come back in September. So here’s to a summer of me-chosen books to read next to the pool.

Until next time, write on.

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