This week another watery book – `The Ocean At The End Of The Lane’ by Neil Gaiman. According to the author, he intended to write a short story based on an incident from his childhood but it expanded into an `unexpected’ novel. `The Ocean At The End Of The Lane’  has just come out in hardback in both Britain and America. It is also available as an ebook and in an audio version performed by Gaiman himself.

The story is set in rural Sussex, England and begins with the unnamed narrator killing time before a family gathering. He drives back to the village where he lived as a child in the 1960’s. His old home has long been demolished but the Hempstocks’ farm at the end of the lane is still there. He is welcomed by a woman he assumes to be the mother of his half-forgotten childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock. When our narrator (I’ll call him `the boy’ from now on) visits a pond which Lettie told him was an ocean, he begins to remember the extraordinary things that happened when he was seven…

The boy has had to give up his bedroom to a lodger and move in with his little sister because his parents have financial problems. The lodger soon gambles away his friends’ money and kills himself at the end of the lane. After the body is found, the boy is sent to nearby Hempstock Farm to get him out of the way. He is looked after there by young Lettie and her kindly mother and grandmother, who all know exactly how and why the lodger died. When spooky things begin to happen, such as waking up with a coin in his throat, the boy goes to the Hempstocks for help. Old Mrs Hempstock reveals that the recent suicide has disturbed one of the ancient creatures who live `on the margins’ and it is now interfering with people’s lives and dreams.  Lettie takes the boy with her on a strange journey to parts of the farm which don’t seem to be in the world he knows. As she tries to bind the defiant creature, Lettie promises that the boy will be safe as long as he keeps holding her hand. He doesn’t and a dangerous connnection is formed between the boy and `the grey thing’. When his parents introduce him to new baby-sitter, Ursula, the boy senses that she isn’t human. `Ursula’ quickly manages to turn his own family against him. Worse still, the scavengers who are after Ursula also regard the boy as their lawful prey. His only hope is Lettie and the pond that is so much more than it seems.

`The Ocean At The End Of The Lane’ is a deceptively slight novel. The characters are few and the plot is simple but the ideas are big. The story is told in the kind of a pared-down language that is very easy to read and very hard to write. As has happened to me with other novels by Gaiman, I would decide to read just one chapter and then realize fifty pages later that I’d been too absorbed to notice time passing. This book is more than the sum of its parts and that may be because it has such solid foundations in myth and memory. There are glancing references in the boy’s account to Ancient Egyptian myths and Lettie’s pond is very like the Egyptian Waters of Chaos, which contain and connect all things that have been and will be.

Triads of maiden, mother and crone are found in many cultures but has the triple goddess ever seemed as real as she does in this novel? Freckled Lettie who has been eleven for a very long time, apple-cheeked Ginny in sensible skirt and wellington boots, and cranky grey-haired old Mrs Hempstock bustle about their farm performing everyday tasks such as milking cows, serving up comfort food (pancakes with plum jam, porridge with cream and honeycomb, and the perfect Shepherd’s Pie) and cutting pieces out of time and stitching in new ones. Magic is made in matter-of-fact ways using ordinary objects like jam jars, baskets and broken toys or by singing nursery rhymes. During moments of danger and sacrifice, the boy gets glimpses of the Hempstocks’ other, more awe-inspiring, forms. As Lettie says, `Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside’.

The beginning and end of this book are tinged with the disillusionment of middle age but the majority of the story is told from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. Gaiman clearly has a gift for remembering exactly what it’s like to be a young boy just setting out to explore his world. `The Ocean At The End Of The Lane’ is a book about memories of childhood, rather than a children’s book. Some parts of this book, such as the place where kittens grow in the ground like vegetables, would appeal to young readers, but others might be deeply upsetting because they are very close to the grim realities of child abuse. In a child’s imagination,  places, people and things can be transformed into the wonderful or the monstrous and that’s what happens in this book. Rather like a ghost in an M.R.James story, `Ursula’ seems made of strips of grey cloth and makes `a soft raggedy, flapping sound’. When those strips wrap themselves around the boy as if he’s being mummified alive, it’s a moment of real horror.

Gaiman’s narrator isn’t at all like the smart, plucky and always ultimately successful children he reads about in stories. Unusually for a Fantasy hero, the boy isn’t destined for the role he plays. His involvement with the Hempstocks and the `grey thing’ is accidental. This boy isn’t particularly brave and he has all the limitations of a real seven-year-old. Even when he thinks that Lettie is only eleven, he feels that the age difference between them might as well be a thousand years. He assumes that `Ursula’ will defeat him simply because she is an adult and he is a child but he still keeps trying to escape from her. During the struggle, the boy learns that adults – even parents and other monsters – are frighteningly fallible, and that perhaps `The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups’.  In Gaiman’s fiction this seems a liberating truth. Until next week…