This column explores the often subconscious connection between the places we are from, the spaces in which we write, and the places we write about.
I am writing in the ocean. If you were to ask anyone else, they would say I am writing in my bathtub, which, while technically factual, is wrong, because 1) As I’ve said before, your perception is your reality, and from my perspective, I am in the ocean. And 2) Lettie Hempstock says ocean, so I’m saying ocean. I am writing in my ocean.
If that on-the-nose Hempstock reference didn’t trigger a response from you, let me help you out. Lettie Hempstock is a character in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. The book follows a man home for a funeral who, upon arrival, remembers the journey he took as a child to survive his upbringing and make a friend. Much of the book follows his relationship with the Hempstocks, a family of powerful women who offer guidance and solace to the narrator. Magic is interwoven throughout the book, where creatures from other worlds threaten the narrator, and it is up to the reader to determine how much of it is real, how much of it is a little boy’s rose-colored glasses, how much of it is a grown man’s nostalgia, and, if the magic is real, how much of it is intentionally removed from the narrator’s memory.
The book gets its title from the centerpiece of the setting: Lettie’s ocean, which the narrator at all ages remarks is “just a pond,” and a dirty one at that. Each time, Lettie protests and states “it is my ocean.”
At first, the ocean functions as stated above: a silly landmark, a piece of the setting of the book that marks the Hempstock farm, and a repeated touchpoint between the narrator and Lettie whenever they walk past it. But the ocean quickly develops into something of great importance and ambiguity.
When the narrator is in danger, Lettie plunges him into her ocean to protect him from the outside world, and once under, he realizes that even calling it an “ocean” is too small a word. He feels connected to everything in the universe, all-knowing and all-seeing. He begins to lose not just his own shape, but his human existence, becoming formless and beingless. Just as his soul begins to melt into the ocean itself, Lettie pulls him out.
Later, when attacked by otherworldly creatures, Lettie sacrifices herself for the narrator. In the aftermath, the Hempstock women put Lettie’s body in the ocean, and the ocean pulls her under. The narrator asks if Lettie has died. The Hempstock women say that no, Lettie has not died, she is simply in the hands of the ocean now, and it is up to the ocean to decide to give her back to them.
The use of the ocean as a focal point in the novel showcases Gaiman’s masterful storytelling, particularly his ability to blend tangible settings with deep-rooted psychological metaphor. If the ocean isn’t real, what does it represent? The afterlife? All the things we cannot know? Happiness? Fast-acting Tylenol?
This is not a new concept, the use of fantasy as a means of explaining a larger truth, or covering up a horrific abuse, especially as it pertains to children. Most fairy tales are like this. “The boy did not like his home so he made a new one. One in which property lines carry magical binds, ponds contain the universe, and the moon is always full.”
If the book contained only moments like these, if the book’s highs and lows were all magical, then one could argue that the setting does not matter, the setting is simply a plot component.
However, there is a second water-focused setting in the book, not an ocean, but a bathtub, much like the one I am bubbling in now, that changes things. It involves the narrator’s father attempting to hold him underwater, berate him, and drown him. The realness of this scene is compounded by the knowledge that Gaiman wrote this book specifically for his wife, as a means to offer her a glimpse of his childhood, and who he was as a boy, in a way that he could not simply tell her. There is no metaphor or magic here. In this scene, a boy is being drowned by his father. This moment is painfully real.
Afterwards, the Hempstocks ask the narrator if he would like this memory removed, via magic, so he doesn’t have to think about it. He tells them he wants to think about it, because he lived it. And he wants to remember what his real father did to him in the real world.
When the narrator returns to the Hempstock farm as an adult, and the magic-infused memories come flooding back to him (pun intended), it becomes clear to the reader that the Hempstocks have intentionally and repeatedly warped and cut his memory to help him forget the magic and forget his childhood. They are slightly surprised he even knows how to find the ocean and the farm. The magic has been removed, but the bathtub remains.
Which again, some might take as a clue, a break in the narrator’s consciousness that might fulfill the metaphor, that there was never any magic at all, rather a series of fantasies meant to fill up a boy’s brain space during a time of intense repression and dissociation as a result of abuse and loneliness.
So, fine, let’s argue for a moment that the magic is not real. This begs a question of the entire book: is it better to remember settings and childhoods, as they are? Or is it better to visualize them as we want them to be?
Based on the “magic is not real” argument, I am inclined to say that it does not matter if the setting is as you remembered it, it does not matter if it was really an ocean of the universe or a scummy pond that Lettie drowned in to save a boy’s life. The setting is the same either way, as long as you remember how it made you feel. And if it is easier to feel bad when you are with a powerful girl in a magical ocean, then play pretend.
The narrator chose to feel a particular kind of bad in a non magical setting. He chose to remember and cling to how hopeless he felt in a moment almost entirely devoid of fantasy. When he was in pain at the hands of his father, he did not envision himself in Lettie’s ocean. He was in the moment, and nearly died by asphyxiation at the hands of someone he loved most in a bathtub. That is a hell of a moment to pull back the curtain.
Whether or not I believe the magic is real (answered later), the setting does matter.
Both the ocean and the bathtub are true because: if being loved and cared for feels like fleeing home and running through tall grass, and sitting on warm kitchen tile eating jam, and standing in a fairy ring your best friend made to protect you, and plunging yourself into the universe’s most perfect body of water and hearing her voice, why shouldn’t it look like that too? Why shouldn’t it be that?
And if being physically abused feels like your father drowning you in a bathtub while your mother isn’t home and you sleep in the dark alone, why shouldn’t it look like that? Why shouldn’t it look exactly how it feels?
Settings are not coping mechanisms. The settings we see in books matter because they show us how characters feel about themselves and each other.
Lettie did not drown in a pond, she did not die at all, she is in her ocean, she is underneath. She, like the narrator, feels loved and cared for there. Why wouldn’t she, why shouldn’t she be there?
Which begs the final question: where is there? If the magic is real, must there be something underneath? Must we strip the magic away to get there? Or can there exist in our books and in real life, in the unknown? In the not knowing how many drops of water there are in Lettie’s ocean, but trusting there are enough to form one?
I rest my computer on my bath mat and dip my head under the water. It is warm and I am afraid to open my eyes because of the lavender bath salts. I exhale bubbles out of my mouth, then bring my head back up. I don’t want to know just yet. I want my father to be alive underneath all of this water, playing golf on some otherworldly green. I want my love to be smiling at me as I remember him sitting to my left. I want the bougainvillea outside of each home I’ve lived in to be as fuchsia as I see it when I close my eyes. I want every pothole filled with water on a poorly maintained road to be an ocean. I want every book’s ending to be one page turn away, and still I will not sneak ahead and read it.
I want to remember and misremember. I am in an ocean, not a bathtub.
I want the magic to be real.