Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. He came into my life through the movie, Coraline, which my daughter watched dozens of times, which meant I watched it dozens of times. Coraline was one of the few movies she has watched this way that I found myself drawn more deeply into each time we watched. We went from Coraline to the audiobook of The Graveyard Book and I was hooked.
When Gaiman’s new book, The Ocean at the End of the World, came out, I ordered it hard copy and audiobook. I love hearing him read his books and I highly recommend his audiobooks to everyone. For this book, I read the hard copy first, then listened to the audio and the audio brought out the poetry of certain lines that I had missed in my rush to read the plot of the hard copy.
Gaiman’s plots are objects of beauty. They get you from point a to point b, but they take some time to meander a bit in the middle to interesting places, like a child’s path from point a to b. Adults go directly; children meander and explore the interesting. The Ocean at the End of the World begins with an adult on his way from a funeral to the gathering after, a gathering he does not look forward to attending. Gaiman never says whose funeral it is, but a parent seems likely as the hero ends up driving past the site of his demolished childhood home and down the lane to the Hempstock farm. The first lines of the first chapters say much about this character.
“Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.” “I was not a happy child, although from time to time I was content.”
The hero has a rush of memories return to him as he sits at the edge of a pond that his friend Lettie called ‘the ocean,’ and he is again seven years old, a bookish child bullied at school, conscious of not satisfying his father, pestered by his younger sister, and aware of his mother’s distraction due to increasing money problems. These money problems push the family to rent out the hero’s room and he then shares with his pesty sister. The first lodger we meet is a South African opal miner and here the plot picks up as his taxi runs over the hero’s kitten and then the world spins out of sorts after he commits suicide in the family’s Mini and draws down something dark from somewhere else that begins to cause mischief in the neighborhood. The Mini was driven onto the neighbor’s farm at the end of the lane and it is here that the hero meets Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother. Lettie is eleven, but seems much older. When mischief begins after the suicide, Lettie knows what has happened and she takes the hero with her to “bind” the being that has been called into their world by the opal miner. The Hempstocks are not ordinary women, their farm not an ordinary farm, and Lettie’s pond truly an ocean. Just what they are is unclear, but they have been around since before the creation of the moon and have lived on other worlds. There are Hempstock men, but they have left long ago to wander the world and at one point Ginny Hempstock, Lettie’s mother, tells the hero that one only needs men in order to breed other men and that Lettie has no father. I am probably missing a mythological reference with the Hempstock’s but I was okay with that. I knew there was an allusion, but it played at the edges of my reading rather than consuming me like a puzzle.
The spirit finds its way back into the hero’s world in the form of a nanny/housekeeper/lodger, Ursula Monkton, and she is all sorts of children’s fears wrapped into one. A nanny who acts sweet in front of one’s mother and tortures you as soon as she leaves. A nanny who tortures you and bribes your sister into turning a blind eye. A nanny who seduces your father and turns him against you. A nanny who wants to kill you or maybe just torture you until you wish you were dead. A nanny who steals your family and pushes you out.
As is the case in most Gaiman books, many scenes seem overdetermined–there are layers and layers of meaning going on. At some points I thought this was a story about sexual abuse, particularly with these lines from Ursula Monkton to our hero:
“I’ve been inside you,’ she said. ‘So a word to the wise. If you tell anybody anything, they won’t believe you. And, because I’ve been inside you, I’ll know. And I can make it so you never say anything I don’t want you to say to anybody, not ever again.”
At other points I thought it was a story about emotional abuse. In describing his father, the hero says,
“He never hit me. He did not believe in hitting. He would tell us how his father had hit him, how his mother had chased him with a broom, how he was better than that. When he got angry enough to shout at me he would occasionally remind me that he did not hit me, as if to make me grateful. In the school stories I read, misbehavior often resulted in a caning, or the slipper, and then was forgiven and done, and I would sometimes envy those fictional children the cleanness of their lives.”
In a horrifying scene, the hero’s father, now under Ursula Monkton’s spell, pushes his son under in a tub of cold water in a scene that for this American brought out group guilt about waterboarding. Thanks to quick thinking from the hero, he does not die, but Gaiman leaves us wondering if the father would have gone that far.
And more emotional abuse from Ursula:
“We don’t talk to him,’ she told my sister. ‘We won’t talk to him again until he’s allowed to rejoin the family.”
At other times I thought the story was just about bullying.
“‘Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of anything.’ ‘Oh, monsters are scared, said Lettie. ‘That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups…’ She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, ‘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 one, in the whole world.”
And then it is a story about sacrifice (which is beautiful became the hero loves the Narnia books). And home. And becoming an adult and living a life worthy of the sacrifices that have been made for us.
Read it. Listen to it. Then do it again.