The Terror and Wonder of Childhood

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Neil Gaiman’s latest adult novel looks back on the wonders and terrors that surround childhood.

Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the story of an older man who returns to his childhood home for a funeral. After the funeral, he begins to drive through his old haunts and winds up on a farm that has been in the area for centuries. A pond behind the farmhouse is eerily familiar to him, and memories begin seeping back into him as he sits by it. He remembers a strange and wonderful girl he knew when he was seven, named Lettie Hempstock. He remembers that she called the pond her ocean. And then, “I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.”

As the man sits by Lettie’s ocean, he remembers the dark adventure he had the year that he turned seven. It started when his family’s lodger stole their car, drove it to the end of the lane, and died there. That is how the boy first meets Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother–three fantastic, wise, and strong women who protect him as terrifying events unfurl around him. The boy learns what it is truly like to feel frightened, powerless, and, ultimately, brave.

This book is being marketed as Mr. Gaiman’s first book for adults since American Gods and Anansi Boys. The book feels, however, much more in line with the tone of his books for children, Coraline and The Graveyard Book—dark and dangerous, but also beautiful and filled with wonder. While the book is told from the perspective of a seven year old boy, it becomes clear through the subtleties in the book why the novel is marketed towards adults.

While, yes, there are some elements to the book that are distinctly adult, including an evil woman who would give Philip Pullman’s Mrs. Coulter a run for her money, the true reason that the book is for adults is found in the novel’s epigraph. The epigraph is taken from a conversation that Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus had with Maurice Sendak, author of beloved children’s books such as Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. Sendak said, “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would terrify them.” This book is written for adults, not children, because it is filled with a type of nostalgia and melancholy that children cannot fully understand yet. As the adult narrator looks back on the adventures he had when he was seven, he remembers what it was like to be a child. Lonely, lost in dreams and worlds from books, powerless in the face of the adults around him in a frightening world. But he was also wise, insightful, and, at times, fearless.

This book is seeped in nostalgia, a pain and longing for home. “So what will happen now?” the adult narrator asks one of the Hempstock women at the end of the book. “You go home,” she replies. “I don’t know where that is anymore,” he tells her. The journey back into memories long buried in his mind is hard and painful, but also a piece of the home that he lost long before. The man remembers what it is like to believe in something, to have a deep sense of conviction, and to utterly trust another person even with his life. And as much as the journey hurts, as the man sits by the pond that is Lettie’s ocean, he comes home for a while, able to see into the core of what makes him who he is, both dark and light.

While Gaiman’s new novel is a slender 178 pages, it is powerful because of the honesty with which he tells the story. It is an incredibly personal narrative, one that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned. Gaiman reminds adult readers of what it is like to be a child, and reminds us of how much children truly know. And, as Maurice Sendak said, it is terrifying, but also wonderful.

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The full text of Art Spiegleman’s conversation with Maurice Sendak about childhood. (Click to enlarge the text.)

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