The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: A half-remembered fairy tale from childhood

A book that feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman
Headline, 256pp, £16.99

Neil Gaiman made his name with The Sandman, a sprawling comic book series released over the course of seven years from 1989 to 1996, which starred Morpheus, the embodiment of dreams (and imagination and art and invention – it was a broad remit).

So wide-ranging was The Sandman, wheeling from a game of thrones in Hell in one book to a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in another, that Gaiman has been touching on its themes ever since, perhaps attempting to reach those highs again. Neverwhere (1996) is an adventure through a world parallel to our own; American Gods (2001) explores the relationship of deities to their believers and asks what happens to a god who no one remembers; Coraline (2002) warns that we might not always want what we wish for. In tone and temperament, “Gaimanesque” is well defined.

In recent years, Gaiman has shifted from genre fiction for adults towards work for children and young adults. Coraline was his first volley and The Graveyard Book, a spin on The Jungle Book, came a few years later to great acclaim. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is thus heralded as Gaiman’s return to adult fiction but it bears more of a similarity to Coraline than his other novels. Both books feature a child plunged into a world of magic, where they must adhere to sets of rules they can never quite comprehend while enduring a subversion of expectations of parental responsibility.

Coraline tells the story from a child’s perspective but in Ocean it is recounted by the protagonist some 30 years later, as he returns to his childhood home for a funeral. The story isn’t filtered through the sensibilities of a child – the narrator occasionally comments on his naivety –but the plot can adopt the sort of logic that works best with a young protagonist: the ability to take odd occurrences as perfectly natural, while asking the sort of questions that might seem mad coming from an adult. It’s a smart way for Gaiman to have his cake and eat it.

Some of the plot is drawn from traditional myths of fairies and strange places – there’s a power in true names, don’t let go of your guide, keep an eye out for the maiden, the mother and the crone – but other parts are new inventions, deftly folded into the fabric of the story so that they feel older than they are. As this process is gradually revealed, the narrative begins to feel rather more episodic than it ought to. At several points, an end appears to be close, before a new quirk in the magic is introduced and the problems begin all over again.

At the start of the novel, a gathering of not-quite-witches reveal a spell that can splice a memory out of existence. Take someone’s clothing, give it a snip here, a stitch there and you can change their past. Ocean could have been made through the same process.

Gaiman has written a book that reads like a half-remembered fairy tale from childhood. It has the easy flow of a story already heard, deeply known, and slots perfectly into the canon of British magical fiction. But it also feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams. For a book that plays so constantly with memory, perhaps that’s appropriate.

Alex Hern is a staff writer for Newstatesman.com

Out of the blue: Gaiman writes of myths and magic. Photograph: Millenium Images, UK

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge