I’m writing a part three because I meant to include this in part one and never found an appropriate place to put it. I decided to put it in part two instead, and also never found an appropriate place to put it. As such, part three was born; where better to put this than in a part especially made for it?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been my favourite book since I first read it some three or four years ago; I can’t remember when. It was a spontaneous buy, like most of my books are, and came recommended by nobody. I’d seen it on the shelf and decided the plot sounded intriguing enough that I bought it.
It’s short, for a novel, being only just over 50,000 words. It’s also possibly one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read.
Initially, I wanted to try and keep this spoiler free but, I think, for what I want to do (which is unpack the book in all its glory), that isn’t gonna be possible. Therefore, let this serve as a warning:
THERE WILL BE MAJOR SPOILERS!
One of the main themes of this book is identity. The main character, a grown man, goes back to his hometown for a funeral and ends up going to a house he remembers from his childhood. It was (and still is) a friend’s — Lettie Hempstock, and her mother’s, and her grandmother’s — house — and a big part of who he is was due to this house and what happened in it. He sits down by the edge of a pond and recalls that Lettie called it ‘her ocean’ — and, as the book says, “…remembering that, I remembered everything else.”
It recalls his life as a seven-year-old, from first meeting her to the incidents that made him, well, him. It’s an odd tale, composing of a literal worm in his foot, a literal hole (door) in his heart, and the literal journey taken to fix it.
There’s a lot to be said about that, in itself, but I don’t think that’s vital for this.
There’s a very interesting section in the book — but before that, I need to set the scene. Lettie, who is an eleven-year-old girl who has been eleven for a long time (she’s not human, and neither are her mother or grandmother; they came ‘from the old country’), takes the boy to part of the old country that they brought with them and is attached to their farm. In fear, he lets go of her hand (which she tells him not to do) and that’s when the worm goes up and into his foot.
Later that day, once safely back in his own place, he pulls out part of the worm from the hole in his foot, but it’s too late; it’s already made a hole in his heart and used it as a ‘door’ to the real world. It appears as a woman named Ursula and creates hell for him, going so far as to have his father almost drown him.
(It’s interesting to note that, at some point, she says that she doesn’t make anyone do anything; she gives them over to their desires and helps them do what they think they want. But that’s another point for another day.)
When they manage to get rid of by calling on ‘the hunger birds’, creatures that clean messes by eating it away (so it doesn’t exist anymore) they don’t leave after eating Ursula. Instead, they stay, because a part of her path still remains inside the boy; he is still a door, and therefore also needed cleaning.
Long story short, they were going to tear into him, and eat his heart, but Lettie threw herself on top of him and was, in turn, hurt badly to the point of almost death (her people, the Hempstocks, cannot die, but she was as hurt as one of them could be hurt. They gave her to the ocean and, when she’s better, the ocean will give her back). Since they hurt a Hempstock, they could be banished. Simply put, she (in a way) died for him.
His identity is found in all these things, although they make him forget it. (“It’s easier that way.”)
The most astounding thing is that, in all its 50,000ish word glory, not once do we find out the name of the main character. There is a single comment, a line in which a false version of his father calls him ‘Handsome George’, but it’s made clear that it’s a nickname, and if his name is George or not is never made certain.
In a book about identity, not once do we find out for sure the name of the main character — and yet we know so much about him and learn more things than we ever wanted to. We’re with him through the fears, through the uncertainty, through the discovery of what makes him, him… All of it. The good, the bad, the everything else.
Who he is, therefore, had far more to do with what happened to him than his name.
The climax of the book, the one scene that defines him the most, is when Lettie dies (or dies as much as a Hempstock can die) for him. When she put herself between him and the hunger birds and allowed them to tear into her instead of him; when she took his place.
(I wonder, should Neil Gaiman be a Christian (he isn’t), if people would claim he had ulterior motives. The book is full of parallels to sin, death, and Jesus. To me, it was done even more blatantly than Narnia — except I don’t think that Neil Gaiman meant to do it. (He said the book write itself.) A hole in the heart that cannot be filled, needing to grow a new heart, someone dying in place of someone else so that the hunger birds could be banished for good… The interesting thing is many people read it and don’t see this connection; it was all I could see in a beautiful and fantastic way. But I’m getting distracted.)
The main character is who he is today not because of a name, but because of what Lettie did.
We are who we are today not because of a name, but because of what Jesus did.
That, I think, is the problem with names. If the main character had one, we would refer to him with it. “Oh, you know, Henry.” “You know Anderson.” “That kid, Bradley.”
If we don’t have a name, how do we refer to him? “The one who had a hole in his heart.” “Ursula’s door.” “The one Lettie died for.”
We become defined by what happened to or for us — and may it always be this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.