It’s been a while since I’ve read a whole book in a day. Growing up, it was a fairly frequent occurrence, but since adulthood, reading takes longer. I don’t have the time I used to, I guess. Studying literature in university distanced me from the act of reading for pleasure, and I sometimes wonder if I still feel the long term affects of such an education. I don’t always read books just because I enjoy them; I pick books that I feel I should read, books that will somehow stretch me, or add to my understanding of the world, or merely add to the books I’ve read from the canon.
I’m not saying that this is a bad way to read. In fact, I strongly believe that books can help us find our place in the world and develop a stronger connection to ourselves and the depth of human experience. But, sometimes, I just want to read a book really really fast, and enjoy every single moment of my time in its pages.
Fortunately, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman delivered a book that was both an intensely pleasurable and fast read, while also leaving me with so much to think about: childhood, memory, magic.
The book opens with a funeral and a middle aged man visiting his childhood home – or where it used to stand, anyway. He’s not quite sure why, but he decides to drive down the lane and visit the home of his first friend, Lettie Hempstock. Sitting beside the pond on her farm, his memory is triggered and the reader is thrown into a world that looks very different, but at the same time, not different at all, from the grown-up world the narrator currently lives in.
This book focuses so much on memory. It is fluid, unreliable, able to be manipulated. Throughout the short novel, the reader wonders what is real and what is not, especially as the events the narrator remembers become more and more magical, the world as we know it shifting further and further from reality. It kept me thinking about some of my own memories too. I don’t remember anything quite so magical happening in my own childhood, but, regardless, I know my own memories of my childhood have occasionally proven inaccurate, and I know that certain places and certain people have the ability to help sharpen it in the same way that the Hempstocks allowed the narrator to remember his childhood clearly and accurate. Part of the reason I loved this book so much was the way it portrayed memories of childhood.
While this book left me thinking about my own memories of childhood, it also pushed me into thinking about Isabel’s memories. She’s 18 months. Any day now, she could have her first memory. What will it be? Magical or mundane? How will she remember it when she grows up?
Within the fluidity and unreliability of memory, Gaiman was able to address so many difficult issues, especially in relation to children. At the age of 7, the main character experiences the cruelty of abuse and neglect at the hands of his parents, and finds himself navigating the world with the help of a trio of witches, as they fight against the power of a fantastical creature crossed from the magical world into reality.
The way Gaiman talks about adulthood really struck a chord with me. “The truth is, there aren’t any grown ups. Not one in the whole wide world.” I hear this same kind of sentiment from everyone around me; everyone feels like they’re failing at life at one time or another or, some of us, all the time. We feel like we’re failing at being adults, at being parents, at our jobs, and at our hobbies. The feeling of failing at life is so prevalent in our world today. I think, in many ways, this book is for those of us who feel like we’re failing, a reminder that everyone else is too and that it’s ok if we do because our memories of our grown-up failures are not necessarily the memories that will last.
Clearly, I enjoyed this book. Reading the last page was almost mournful because I knew it was coming to an end. I already miss the world of the Hempstocks.