Good Books Good Times Book Club: The Ocean at The End of The Lane Chapters 5-8

Sorry for the delay on this one, everybody. There’s a lot going on and I didn’t have time to continue our book club last weekend like I was hoping to. But holy cow these last four chapters were awesome. I did such a good job with accidentally splitting up these chapters in a way that made sense.

If you haven’t read our discussion about the first four chapters yet, you can still totally do so. But now let’s talk about how l complained last time that the bad guys didn’t feel threatening enough and then BAM URSULA MONKTON.

Chapter 5

This was a fantastic, short and sweet chapter, except if “sweet” meant “goddamned disgusting”. This part with him pulling the worm out of his foot was so gross, but also just awesome. It was supernatural enough where it didn’t feel like a real disease, but definitely like some sort of malevolent force. I still have no idea why there’s a malevolent force after this kid, which actually makes the next few chapters really interesting when the worm comes back as Ursula Monkton, especially in the context of the childhood vs adulthood theme. Where the powerlessness of childhood is almost more so the enemy than the actual enemies are.

Anyway, this was like a four page chapter and I’m struggling to come up with anything more to say about it, so…

Chapter 6

One of my favorite things about the childhood theme in this novel is the way children read books. There’s a lot going on in here and I’m gonna struggle to talk about it succinctly, so here’s a small list:

  1. I’m a sucker for when characters in stories read stories, because there’s almost always some metaphorical thing going on where it plays into the book in a larger sense. Like at the beginning of this chapter when he’s reading the Egyptian mythology and he wonders why Ra didn’t kill Hathor “when they had the chance”, and we’re just like “uh, like how at the end of the last chapter you literally said you couldn’t bring yourself to actually kill the worm?”. There’s a few other books that he reads in these chapters, but the connections aren’t quite as obvious. I’d love to speculate on these with you guys.
  2. Warning – This point is super English major-y, so skip it if you don’t like this stuff: Ariel and I took our senior seminar for the English major last year in a class called Victorian Others. We were expecting it to be about Others in the sense that “Other” is traditionally used in the humanities, where people who deviate from a “norm” sort of get typecast as exotics (like women, non-European characters, queer characters, etc) and the evolution of their depiction through literature reflects on the sociopolitical context the literature was written in. Anyway, it wasn’t about that, but this other thing where the Victorian Era was one of the first where ideas of the unconscious and the theory of evolution really started to take hold in the social consciousness. So suddenly people were more aware of these ideas that there’s stuff hidden away in humanity driving humanity. The evolution stuff is extra interesting here, because suddenly the line between the human and the animal isn’t as rigid as it once was, and the literature from this time on reflects a certain semi-permeability here and brings in a certain “animal within”. One way this became really interesting was through the idea of the child as an other, like as a time in human life where a person is inherently closer to nature due to – to oversimplify this – childlike imagination. And with that really long-winded explanation of why Ariel and I have bachelor’s degrees, it’s super interesting for me to think of what Neil Gaiman is doing here with his themes of childhood in this context. The main character here is so much closer to all this supernatural stuff in ways that adults aren’t – the main character is telling this story as an adult who literally could not remember any of it until now. It kind of reminds me of J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, where Peter is eternally a child and linked to all this fantasy and supernatural wonder, and when the children he brings into this world with his leave and grow up, they completely lose any connection they had with it. There’s a fantastic quote in this chapter that sums it all up:
    “Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, the creep beneath the rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”
    Which is kind of the entire theory behind books like Peter and Wendy and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, that children are allowed a less civilized, less “human” sense of adventure and excitement, but it’s always unclear whether that’s actually a good thing. So, yeah, if anybody wants to talk about this, uh, hit me up!

Anyway, that long aside out of the way, I love the slow build with Ursula. She just starts out as irritating, telling the narrator not to go exploring on his own, and then telling him to go take a nap, but then she gets spooky when she’s the voice on the telephone. She reminds me of Harry Potter‘s Dolores Umbridge, where at first you just hate her, but then you realize that she’s actually seriously threatening and you hate her more.

Chapter 7

LIKE THIS. WHERE THE DAD TRIES TO DROWN THE KID. HOLY SHIT. Once again, the childhood theme really makes this work perfectly – because the adult reader sees Ursula’s sexual manipulation of the dad, but in the child context it’s just more of how she’s possessing and hijacking the narrator’s entire life. I like how the narrator straight up says, “I was a child and didn’t think anything of this”. The implications of the one perspective on the other are great here.

Also, this chapter is just terrifying, so that’s cool!

Chapter 8

Two of my absolute favorite things that have happened in the book so far happen in this chapter where the narrator tries to make his great escape from the house to the Hempstocks. First, there’s this bit where the narrator reminds us the context in which this story is taking place:

(I am staring at a pond, remembering things that are hard to believe. Why do I find the hardest thing for me to believe, looking back, is that a girl of five and a boy of seven had a gas fire in their bedroom?)

I love this, because it’s reminding us that 1) the adult narrator doesn’t remember any of this until he returned to the Hempstock farm, and we have no idea why, which is a cool mystery, and 2) introduces doubt – the narrator isn’t sure about the accuracy of his account of his story. He’s already admitted that he didn’t remember it until now, and we have no idea why. Should we be concerned about an unreliable narrator? Should we be questioning what’s going on? I DON’T KNOW. ISN’T THIS FUN?

His sliding down the drainpipe (again, because he read about it in books, bringing me back to that point I made earlier that I love) and then running away is fantastic. It’s so frightening when Ursula returns in her supernatural glory (with her blouse undone and her bra showing, having just come from being with the father, once again merging that adult-sexuality/child-supernatural thing I was talking about earlier, which I still think is really clever framing). And then, when all hope is lost, LETTIE MOTHERFUCKING HEMPSTOCK.

The girl who was walking toward us, across the field, wore a shiny red raincoat, with a hood, and a pair of black Wellington boots that seemed to big for her. She walked out of the darkness, unafraid. She looked up at Ursula Monkton.
“Get off my land,” said Lettie Hempstock.

You guys loved Lettie Hempstock – I’m pretty sure most of the comments people wrote last time were about how much people liked this character. And it’s so great to see her return, doing the same “instantly solving problems” thing, but in a context that’s actually threatening. And it’s fantastic when she says “You were lucky… Fifteen feet further back, and the field belongs to Colin Anders.” Like, as deus ex machina as Lettie is, we understand clearly the limitations she does have.

So For Next Time

I think planning for next weekend (August 10th) might be a good plan since this one went up late and it doesn’t make sense to do this again for this weekend. So, once again, next four chapters for then! And do leave comments here! Talk about what I brought up, bring up what you want to talk about. Whatever, man! This is our book club!

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  1. theparasiteguy Reply

    The incident with the bathtub is undoubtedly the single most memorable scene I have read in a long time. Really hooked me on the novel, that did. Not that I wasn’t hooked already, but still.

    Also, am I the only one who “hears” all of Lettie’s lines in Luna Lovegood’s voice? Yes? Oh…

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    • matthewjulius Reply

      It definitely creeped me out in a good way.
      Lettie’s got her shit too together for me to get much Luna Lovegood vibe.

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  2. Kehdece Reply

    Ahhhh these last four chapters have totally hooked me on the book.
    It’s not often that I feel as invested in a character’s state of horror as I do with the narrator in this book. I think fear is really hard to write properly so it translates to the reader, but Gaiman is really keeping me interested and decently freaked out the whole time.
    It’s kind of interesting, because my main complaint about this book was that I felt the child narrator was really stoic and hard to connect with in earlier chapters. However, after chapter 8, when he completely lets go in the field and starts running helplessly, and wetting himself from fear…
    I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but having a character really break down in a story always makes them seem more real and human if it’s written well… or maybe it’s just nice to see a different side of him.

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    • matthewjulius Reply

      I think what really works about the sense of horror in this book is that his complete powerless-ness comes from his being a child, which everyone can relate to

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  3. Judy Reply

    Neil Gaiman did a superb job reading his book for the audio version. I loved it. The subtile creepy sense of foreboding at the start of this book, reminded me very much of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. In that book the newly turned 11 year old Will begins his awakening to ancient powers and struggles between forces of good and evil from Celtic, Norse and Arthurian legend. I love books like this where another world exists unseen to the majority like in Harry Potter. I like how the boy in The Ocean…..excepts the other worldliness of the things happening to and around him. Gaiman captures childhood power struggles, wonder, and openness in truly evocative ways.
    Ursula Munkton is terrifying, the bathtub scene was terrifying, Lettie is amazing, I kept thinking get to Lettie, get to Lettie but I felt as hopeless as the “boy” about his chances of actually accomplishing that. (Also, the kitten part in the beginning made me so angry, later when he “picked” a kitten it made me happy.)
    Now to the Hempstocks… I think they are the Greek goddess Hecate. She is often depicted as 3 women- crone, mother and maiden. I think Lettie loves/helps the “boy” because he believes so completely in her. Like in other books, the old gods need our belief in them to continue having their power. I was thinking about their food, it’s almost like ambrosia, the milk, cream, honey comb everything is restorative. Meanwhile, the boy not eating Ursula Mungton’s food is like how you are not supposed to eat the food fairies prepare because it will put you under there spell.
    Just some thoughts.. Matt loved the Engish majory stuff. Really good. The line “Adults follow paths….” got me too.

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    • matthewjulius Reply

      I think my godfather gave me The Dark Is Rising when I was a kid, but I just could not get into the first book. I’ve heard bits about it every now and again, though, so I wonder if I missed out on something good.
      I haven’t put much thought into the Hempstocks representing actual pre-existing mythology, but that’s a pretty solid background to base it on. I haven’t read any other Gaiman, but there does seem to be a lot of Gods and mythology in his titles, at least. (I just picked up Good Omens, the book he wrote with Terry Pratchett, today.)

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