This was a hard read for me. I don’t mean hard in the brain-taxing Hilary Mantel sense. Rather, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane forced me to face some pretty tough questions, questions that are even, dare I say, existential: Who am I anyway? And who am I when I read? Am I my 40-something self with all the baggage that comes with being a grown-up, a former academic, a wife and mother, and a book blogger? Can I help but be that person when I open a book?
I didn’t expect to have this problem when I picked up Gaiman’s novel. I admit—I’m late to the Gaiman party and have never read his other stuff, so I was ready to find out what I’ve been missing. Over the summer, his Ocean at the End of the Lane was everywhere I turned. If you’ve been in a book store in the past six months, you’ve seen it, too. It’s a fixture on staff-picks shelves across the country. Though many of Gaiman’s books can be said to defy age classification altogether, past works like The Sandman comic series, the book-turned-movie Coraline, and the Newbery Medal–winning Graveyard Book seem aimed directly at kids. The Ocean is Gaiman’s first “adult” novel in a long time, or so said the marketers, the reviewers, and the bookstore chains.
And thus I opened it as an adult. And I aimed to read it as an adult. And I intended to succeed. I didn’t expect this to be difficult, and I didn’t expect to have to confront issues about my age. I mean, in a society where the cult of youth is omnipresent, isn’t literature one area where I still have the upper hand? Can’t I read an adult novel better than a preteen can?
Yet, a few chapters into The Ocean, I realized I was in over my head.
For me, the novel got off to a strong start. A middle-aged man (see, it is about an adult!) pays a visit to the house where he spent his childhood and recalls a life-altering moment: at age 7, he found the corpse of a stranger who committed suicide in a car parked down the lane from his house. This premise hooked me instantly—how would such a startling experience impact the narrator, and what would be the aftereffects over the next few decades?
I was just settling into the rising action when the narrator interrupted my grown-up mindset with this:
Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?
Oh, but this wonderfully realistic story isn’t slow, I thought. There’s no need for a Narnia or a secret island at the moment. This novel is nice just as it is.
But, then, as the narrator’s mind takes him back to his childhood, the plot takes a rapid turn. The little boy wakes up choking on a silver shilling he’s never seen before. He and his new friend Lettie Hempstead leave the farmhouse property and encounter a strange force that can only be described as “a flapping, writhing mass of cobwebs and rotting cloth.” The next day, he discovers that a long wormlike creature has embedded itself in his body. Toto, I thought, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
At that moment, Gaiman has his narrator chide my adult sensibilities again:
Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.
And now I’m starting to get it. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is telling me what it will take to read it. It’s suggesting that my normal adult-oriented mind isn’t going to cut it in this otherworldly novel. In order to make it through, I’m going to need to step out of my comfort zone and adopt the mind of a child. “Children, as I have said, use back ways and hidden paths, while adults take roads and official paths.” That’s right: I’m going to have to put aside my conventional way of reading—my boring “roads and official paths”—and choose instead the more magical “back ways” and “hidden paths.”
Though the novel gets increasingly weird, Gaiman continually assures me through his narrator (who is an adult turned child, turned adult again) that I can accept it, that I can suspend my disbelief enough to inhabit this odd space in time. There’s a child in all of us, The Ocean says, begging to be let out for a story like this:
I thought about adults. I wondered if that was true: if they were all really children wrapped in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long adult books, the kind with no pictures or conversations.
Although I’m more used to those “dull, long adult books,” and I quite like them, I tried to let my inner child read this novel. By the end, I’m not ashamed to say I felt perplexed, disturbed, and somewhat tired. I had worked my way through Gaiman’s short novel, and, at the same time, the book had performed some work on me. It had recognized my limitations as a reader—as an adult reader—and it had called me out on it. Gaiman’s novel refused to let me remain in my comfortable adult frame of mind; it spoke to me and demanded that I open myself up to the possibilities of childhood reading.
Gaiman’s narrator, now an adult but reliving a boyhood experience, is dealing with this same conflict between what a child accepts as real and what an adult tries to mold into reality. And is he a different person now from the boy he was then?
A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn’t I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don’t change.
He’s not sure whether he’s been changed by his experience. And I could say the same about my experience in reading the novel. Am I a different reader? I doubt I’d go so far as to say that. But I did learn a few things about the benefits of reading like a child again.
If you’ve successfully read Gaiman’s novel, or any other book that required a childlike perspective, share it below!