Except the first impression of her reminded me of a dilapidated Bounce House Princess (any Adventure Time fans out there?).
After that, she got dang frightening. Neil Gaiman has done it again. This novel may be short, but it is populated with vivid characters. Gaiman is an expert at creating his own myths, and everything is soaked in a kind of magic at once improbable yet completely natural to its setting. This story begins with a the protagonist coming back as a middle-aged man to the region where he spent his childhood. He takes a drive down memory lane, except it is a literal, physical lane that takes him back to period in his life that he cannot remember, except when he is close to the source of the events. It was a frightening and dangerous time, although brief, and he is only vaguely aware of it, like a dream clearly remembered upon waking then quickly forgotten moments later. It is a memory that only leaves the impression of having happened, somehow, but with no details or sense of reality. Like the lane itself, which has changed so much that it only resembles the lane from his childhood the further down it that he travels, the memories of what occurred only resemble what happened as he gets closer to the end.
Once he reaches the little duck pond that serves as the titular ocean at the end of the lane, he begins to recall the events that led him to return. He remembers the odd, practical, no-nonsense Hempstock women who live on the farm by the pond, imbued with magical powers and ancient knowledge. He also recalls the girl, Lettie, whose courage perhaps saved his life, or perhaps from a fate worse than death. All the memories and knowledge come back to him as he sits by Lettie’s little ocean; he remembers things he was not aware he forgot. A picture is painted of a child, awkward and unable to make friends easily, who loves books and does not get along with his more socially well-adjusted sister. I can relate to this kid. I was awkward and bookish, getting lost in the world of the book I was reading (or books, as was often the case). Anyways, this kid, the narrator/protagonist as a young boy, finds himself in an all-too-real world of magic and monsters, set off by the suicide of a boarder at his parents’ home.
The terror and helplessness of a boy faced with unimaginable obstacles, and the disbelief of his parents, is palpable. I was actually a little frightened by the sinister machinations of the villain. I was also surprised by the explanation of the monster’s behavior, as offered by Lettie. I will not share it, because that might spoil the book, but it makes you think the whole time. Gaiman also leaves the door wide open for future stories based in this world he created, as well as a whole bunch of questions that long to be answered. Yet it would be a shame to answer all of them, as some of the power of this story lies in the unknown, the bits hinted at but just beyond view. It is like something seen in the periphery that vanishes when looked at head on.
I really, really like this short little tale of wonder, and childhood, and magic. I’m so glad I picked it up and dove in. Like Lettie’s ocean, it may appear small, but it contains a huge and special magic. It even has kittens.