See my review of this book, and many more, at Tales from the Great East Road.
What makes us who we are? How much of ourselves is created by our memories? When a forty year old man returns to his childhood village for a funeral he rediscovers the home of an old friend, Lettie Hempstock, who believed the pond in her back garden was actually an ocean. As he explores Hempstock Farm, he finds memories, hidden inside his mind, unfolding and revealing a battle with a monster from another world when he was just seven years old.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is both a strange and beautiful novel. It manages to portray grand ideas and themes, such as memories and the changes we all go through from childhood to adult, on a small, almost isolated scale. The whole novel has a sense of being only a small part of the bigger picture, leaving a feeling of being almost uncompleted. This mirrors beautifully the unnamed narrator's situation - as a child he never fully understands what is happening to him, since adults often don't explain themselves to children in a possibly misguided belief that they won't understand. As an adult, however, he still doesn't see exactly what has happened as he realises that he has forgotten his adventure until he visits Hempstock Farm.
The narrator is a very sympathetic character. He is a lonely young boy who feels isolated and struggles to communicate with his family. The monster, disguised as Ursula Monkton, who infiltrates his family pushes him away from them even further, and the fact that the family never realise her true nature makes it even sadder. The young boy has to live with the trauma caused by her manipulation of his father, which is never resolved or even addressed, as no-one else remembers what happened. This brings up the question as to whether the whole novel is in fact the narrator's way of dealing with this trauma, a fantasy conjured up because he couldn't face what had actually happened and no-one else knew or talked about it.
The Hempstock women - Lettie, Mrs Hempstock, and Old Mrs Hempstock - are another part of the mystery in this novel. Reminiscent of the Pagan Maiden, Mother, and Crone, they are magical and mysterious, but again, never fully explained. As a child, the narrator barely questions them and is satisfied with the vague answers he gets. Who are these women exactly? How old are they, and are they immortal? What exactly is the Ocean in their garden?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a beautifully written, dream-like novel that captures the imagination throughout - but ultimately leaves a feeling of being incomplete. Whilst it does create a sense of nostalgia, a lingering feeling of quiet sadness stayed with me many days after finishing the book - and I believe that this shows Neil Gaiman's great skill as a writer.