In this place of make-believe, the man tries to sort through his memories. He was a bookish boy, fond of myths, children’s adventure stories and Gilbert and Sullivan songs. His family lived on the edge of financial hardship, and he had no friends. Into this bleak existence arrived the fabulous Lettie, her mother and her grandmother, who gradually reveal that they have been on the farm for at least a millennium. The Hempstocks are wonderfully drawn characters, earthy, homespun and fiercely protective of their new little friend, particularly when trouble arrives.
And what trouble it is. A veil between the worlds is rent, and out pop some of the most vivid monsters in the Gaiman canon, including a seductress who gives this novel its mildly “adult” flavor, footworms (as bad as they sound), and amorphous creatures bigger than houses and full of menace. One particularly spooky sequence involves a series of imposters of all the people in the boy’s life whom he ordinarily trusts, trying to tempt him with threats and entreaties. Set against these varmints are the boy’s fierce protectors, the three generations of Hempstock women. The clash of the two supernatural forces gives the story its nervous energy.
Gaiman is a magpie, a maker of collages, creating something new and original out of the bits and pieces of his wide reading of myth and folklore. This intricate supernatural world in a rural corner of England offers strong hints of the neopagan Threefold Goddess (Robert Graves’s Maiden, Mother and Crone) and the healing powers of water, particularly the ocean, as well as allusions to Gaiman’s other works. (There is a Liza Hempstock in “The Graveyard Book,” and vicious birds frequent many of his stories, including the “carrion kind” in his Sandman graphic novels, to name but two links. Dedicated readers will recognize further connections.)
What a weird world he’s made, as weirdly compelling as, say, the parallel worlds in his widely popular novel “Coraline.” The metaphysics of the Hempstock farm and the various monsters that threaten Lettie and the boy are neatly juxtaposed against the claims of the adult narrator. He is uncertain as to what really happened and what it all really means, just as we are, but there is no question about what is at play in “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”
This is a novel of nostos — that ineffable longing for home, for the sensations and feelings of childhood, when the world was frightening and magical all at once, when anything and everything were possible. A place and time when the experience of reading a book opened the imagination to enchantment and to terror. “I do not miss childhood,” the narrator says, “but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I found joy in the things that made me happy.”