I enjoy it when authors perform on the audiobooks themselves. The interpretation of the voices and the inflections of any dialogue are true to their original vision and conveys the intended feelings. That’s especially helpful in the case of Neil Gaiman’s novels because they are full of surreal imagery and magic realism. This story is a recollection by a narrator returning home as an adult for a funeral and only gradually remembering of some incredible experiences that happened many years ago when he was a child. It’s fantastical and mundane at the same time.
The narrator was a young boy living in an English village where another, all-female family lived at the end of the lane from them. Lettie Hempstock, a young girl, takes the boy under her wing after the traumatic experience of discovering that the boarder who came to live with his family had borrowed their car, drove it down the lane, and committed suicide in it. There is something refreshingly different about the Hempstocks, not the least of which is how they call a little pond on their property an “ocean”. The boarder’s death had apparently allowed a supernatural entity to enter our world from elsewhere, and it was causing a bit of chaos. Lettie took the boy with her to try to defeat the entity with magic of her own and return things back to normal. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful: a couple of things went wrong and the boy was left with a hole (along with a magical piece of something) in his foot. If all that were not complicated enough, the boy’s mom soon started a new job and they hired a nanny named Ursula Monkton. While his sister thought Ursula Monkton to be wonderful, the boy was suspicious of her — though no one wanted to hear it. He sought out Lettie’s help to destroy or cast out Ursula Monkton who seemed to be insinuating herself into his family, but he got a whole lot more than he bargained for. The boy and Lettie ended up experiencing bizarre, magical creatures and a reality a bit off from the normal, and they are even saved by the ocean that is not an ocean at the end of the lane.
These kinds of surreal, fantastical stories (which seem to be a specialty of Gaiman’s — I’m reminded of Coraline) are often a bit tricky to make sense of (at least for me). There’s the superficial story, which is enjoyable enough, filled with incredible supernatural imagery — Gaiman has a way with description that is pretty marvelous. Even the plain story is far from ordinary. However, the underlying meaning is a bit lost on me. Is this meant to be a metaphor for something more mundane? Growing up? Memory? What does the Ocean symbolize? It usually feels like it’s supposed to be something but it’s difficult to put your finger quite on it. Perhaps that is what Gaiman likes to achieve — something slightly off-kilter and abstract (at least abstract enough to convey that extra sense of wonder and the feeling like the pieces of this story are not just pushed together at random). Despite possibly a limited comprehension of its true meaning (Yes, I am aware that this is basically a children’s story, so why should it give me trouble, but … ), I was thoroughly immersed (if you’ll pardon the pun) in this story. It’s a paradox that after enjoying The Ocean at the End of the Lane I’m left both enchanted and puzzled. (3.5 out of 5)