When I was younger, I devoured books. My dad didn’t allow video games, we didn’t have cable so our cartoon options were limited, and while my childhood was not entirely pre-internet, the internet was definitely not our main source of entertainment. So I mainly read. I reread my favorite books on my shelf, I explored my teacher’s bookshelves, I read whatever my mom gave me. I have really fond memories of having viola practice at 4PM and when school let out at 3:15PM, sneaking into our school library (which was closed), grabbing a stack of books, and reading in a small chair that was tucked out of sight. I had intense concentration and a very high reading speed.
Nowadays, unfortunately, my reading speed and focus have decreased. It takes me longer to finish books and my attention span is shorter too. Instead of reading just one book, I have to switch between two. I’m not entirely sure why this is, though I have my suspicions that social media, flicking through web pages, and how my cell phone provides instant gratification 24 hours a day–are factors. Books do not provide instant gratification. They insist you stop what you are doing and immerse yourself.
This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the positive aspects of the internet and social media. But I am a little disheartened at how it’s affected my reading. I hate how I can’t just sit down and finish a book anymore. I hate how my attention drifts–want to check my Twitter, want to check my Instagram, yadda yadda yadda. This didn’t happen when I was younger. Even if I didn’t like the book, it got my full attention until I finished it. (Sidenote, this is also why I’m giving up online streaming services and social media for Lent this year…so that will be fun.)
That being said, it’s been a long time since a book has captured my interest so devotedly, that I literally couldn’t look away. “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman did this.
It’s hard to describe what this book is about. All I can really say is that it is a perfect fairytale. Now, when I say “fairytale”, I do not mean a Disney story. Disney has co-opted fairytales, and I say this as an avid Disney fan. Fairytales were never G-rated and they weren’t even for children, necessarily. They were dark. They existed in the shadows between adulthood and childhood. They frightened you with wonder. They were meant to send lightning and ice through your blood.
This is what “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” did. It scared me. It made me cry for my childhood, for all the monsters that I wasn’t rescued from. It warmed my heart, as though my mom were comforting me, giving me a snickerdoodle and a glass of milk and telling me a story to chase the nightmares away. Such a short, extraordinary little novel.
When you read this book, there are two parts of you reading it. As I read the book, it wasn’t just me, at 27 years old, worried about bills and groceries and other such boring tasks, reading this book. The little 10-year-old girl with tangled brown hair, seated in a dark school library with a pile of books next to her, was reading with me. I felt so intensely aware of her, this little child I’d done my best to ignore and suppress.
So we read together. I was painfully aware of the awful truth of some of the words Gaiman wrote–like when the monster that called itself Ursula Monkton disguised herself as a little worm inside the main character’s foot. She later transforms into a beautiful woman and tells the little boy, “I’ve been inside you…If you tell anybody anything, they won’t believe you. And, because I’ve been inside you, I’ll know. And I can make it so you never say anything I don’t want you to say to anybody, not ever again.” Or: “You made my daddy hurt me!” The main character, at seven years old, screams at the monster who has intruded his life. The monster replies, “I NEVER MADE ANY OF THEM DO ANYTHING.”
The child more easily accepted that the Hempstock’s fence needed repainting and had a full moon glowing at all times of night. While I constantly wondered about how a pond could hold an ocean, the child nodded as though it were obvious, in the same way that she knew there were unicorns roaming the cornfields by her grandfather’s house and that there was a Bad Thing in the old dog kennel of the woods.
I thought Lettie’s sacrifice was beautiful and poignant. The child rebelled and screamed and demanded Mr. Gaiman BRING HER BACK THIS INSTANT. She pouted when things weren’t entirely resolved by the end, while I acknowledged that that was how life was–unresolved.
And I think that’s what this book is really and truly about. A fairytale, that forces you to connect with that child inside you, whether you’re prepared for it or not. The fact is, you’re never prepared for childhood or adulthood, in the same way I was never prepared for this book.