Of all of Neil Gaiman’s novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably the one most suited for a stage adaptation. While stuffed full of magic and monsters and other such fantasy, it’s more of a quiet story at heart. Introspective, even. A story about what we choose to remember and what we don’t. About a boy who has to grow up a bit too quickly. And it’s these elements that Joel Howrood’s adaptation, the basis for the critically acclaimed National Theatre stage production, focuses on. Perfectly capturing the feeling of wading through an ocean of memories, Horwood’s script faithfully adapts Gaiman’s novel with all of the adventure and emotion you’d want. I haven’t seen the play yet, but the script is a breathtaking piece of writing all to itself. And I can only imagine how brilliantly it translates on stage.
NOTE: This review contains mild spoilers for both the original novel and Joel Horwood’s adaptation of The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Adapted by Joel Horwood
Returning to his childhood home, a man finds himself standing beside the pond of the old Sussex farmhouse where he used to play. When he meets an old friend, he is reminded of a name he has not heard for many years: Lettie Hempstock. And is transported to his 12th birthday, when Lettie claimed that this wasn’t a pond at all, but an ocean…
Plunged into 1983, our young protagonist struggles with the ripples of a disturbing event that makes him question his deepest assumptions about his fractured family. Striving to come to terms with his newly unknowable world, together with his new friend Lettie he must reckon with ancient forces that threaten to destroy everything and in turn learn to trust others to find his own feet.
I first read The Ocean at the End of the Lane around the time it was originally published in 2013. It was the first novel from Neil Gaiman I’d ever read; I’d seen his Doctor Who work, watched Neverwhere, and read some issues of The Sandman by this point but I had never read one of his novels in their entirety. Talk about a hell of a way to get into Gaiman’s work. At the time, I was just approaching adulthood, so this novel’s tale of a middle-aged man going through a deeply nostalgic trip down memory lane really hit me hard as it evoked feelings of long-lost childhood and the story itself proved to be far scarier than anything I’d read from Gaiman before – or, frankly, since. Now, since a stage adaptation of the novel has recently been announced by the National Theatre in the UK (it hits the stage in December of this year and I desperately hope National Theatre Live broadcasts it), it felt like the perfect time to revisit this book. It’s been six years since I last read it and I reread books so infrequently that it’ll almost be like experiencing this story for the first time all over again. And how is it returning to this story, you might ask? Wonderful. I truly adore this novel. (NOTE: this review may feature spoilers related to the plot of the story.)
A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse where she once lived, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
A groundbreaking work as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out.