Dear Mr. Gaiman,
I just finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I’m moved, beyond words. I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes eating popcorn and cookies, paging through journals, and staring into lightbulbs to find the words to say back to you.
A personal work demands a personal response – and instead of a book review, I’d rather give you that.
Many authors write to explore ideas that haunt them. I read that your inspiration to write this book came out of a long-lost family circumstance – a man who killed himself in your family car. In your acknowledgements, you write that you “plunder[ed] the landscape of [your] own childhood” when you wrote this book, even though I know much has been changed.
I didn’t expect this book to touch me, but it didn’t take long.
Near the beginning, your little unnamed narrator tells us, “Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.” This poor boy’s mother cuts his cake anyways. It has a book on it, drawn in icing. Your narrator doesn’t get to play his party games because there is no one to play with (my heart!)
So your narrator opens the party game prize himself – a Batman figurine. He says, “I was sad that nobody had come to my party, but happy that I had a Batman figure, and there was a birthday present waiting to be read, a boxed set of the Narnia books, which I took upstairs” (10).
That little boy charmed me. His literary loves so easily resonated, and his hurts felt so real. But beyond the perfect capture of your youthful narrator’s perspective, it was your rich storytelling, teeming with symbolism, that still has me thinking.
Some online book reviews conjecture that you might be exploring your spiritual background in this work. You grew up in a religiously confused world – attending a Church of England school, with parents coming from Jewish and Scientology backgrounds. In an interview for a British magazine, you gave this comment about your current personal religious beliefs:
I would not stand up and beat the drum for the existence of God in this universe. I don’t know, I think there’s probably a 50/50 chance. It doesn’t really matter to me.”
I feel compelled to tell you that for me, this slim work glowed with signs to indicate that in our fallen, scary world, God exists. Whether you intended to or not, the structure of your story echoes a larger tale. You’ve created a world that feels and looks like ours, but you’ve seemlessly made us believe in forces larger than the material world – “varmints,” the dark shadows, the Ursula Monktons, contrasted with the caring, powerful, good Hempstocks.
I could go on and on, but perhaps the most poignant spiritual truth I notice is how your narrator’s heart is a doorway by which evil enters the world. You’ve set up your plot so that the only way he can live is by the sacrifice of another. I immediately compare the way my own dark heart can either be overtaken with darkness or light, and the sacrifice that enables me to live. After all of the spiritual echoes, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see a Christ figure emerge clearly from the book’s depths. Hey, Lettie Hempstock is an eleven-year-old girl, but let’s remember – Aslan was a lion.
Just as your heroes C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein did, you are weaving timeless truth into fantastical literary worlds, giving us something laden with more than it is.
Wendell Berry, in his excellent work Standing by Words, has said this about the purpose of art:
The right use of any art or discipline leads out of it – as the right use of words leads to a heightened awareness both of the referents of words and of the knowledge, feelings, experiences that cannot be communicated by words.
I’m grateful to you for creating a work that transcends its words. Maybe your other readers will miss the spiritual significance here, the snippets I so clearly see. Maybe you yourself intended a different event.
But that’s the wonder of literature – that through portraits of life, of terror, and of rescue, through holding up pictures of both the real and the imagined, something larger than you could have ever intended is able to shine through.
Thanks for a great read.