Good Books Good Times Book Club: The Ocean at The End of The Lane Chapters 9-12

I’m so sorry about the two week pause between book club updates, here. Kind of had a busy last two weeks, but now it’s time to do the opposite of what you’re usually here for and talk about some good literature. You can still TOTALLY CONTRIBUTE to the discussion on chapters 1-4 and on chapters 5-8, because this is an internet book club on the internet and is all frozen in time at different points so you can follow along at your own pace, whenever! Isn’t that CRAZY?

Do people who don’t watch Doctor Who even get half the jokes I make on this blog?

Chapter 9

All the magic that the Hempstocks do in this chapter are kind of simultaneously things I like and dislike about the story because it feels like both a brilliant strength and a dumb weakness. After the last four terrifying chapters with Ursula Monkton, where our narrator has been completely powerless, suddenly he’s with the Hempstocks who can fix pretty much any problem with magic we haven’t seen before. And I’m really not sure how I feel about this, because I feel like the constant deus ex machina-ing is cheap storytelling that I should complain about, but the effect it creates is pretty brilliant. Far and away my favorite thing about this novel is how captures the contradiction of childhood that it’s a time when someone can be completely powerless (like with Ursula Monkton) or completely safe from danger (like with the Hempstocks).

The way they suddenly (mostly) fix his problem with his parents being furious with him followed immediately by them getting the wormhole out of his foot is a good example of this. It was so awesome how they just cut out his evening, like from time. Like when he’s with the three Hempstocks, there’s just no harm that can come to him. But he can’t stay with the Hempstocks all the time. It’s all a pretty cool way to capture these feelings of childhood.

She passed me the scrap of fabric on the table that she had cut. “Here’s your evening,” she said. “You can keep it, if you wish. But if I were you, I’d burn it.”

How cool is that?

Chapter 10

The explanation that Ursula Monkton is “just trying to give everyone what they want” is a weirdly sufficient explanation for what she is for me, like if we were simply told what kind of creature she is and what they’re like just doesn’t seem to convey horror as well as a morally ambiguous motivation. The way this book defines things in terms like this is one of its strengths:

“What do you think Ursula Monkton is scared of?”
“Dunno. Why do you think she’s scared of anything? She’s a grown-up, isn’t she? Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.”
“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups…” She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.

THIS. THIS IS JUST SO GOOD. One of the most important things about growing up is just kind of realizing that everyone is just a person (this is especially meaningful for me right now, having graduated and looking for a job or my next internship or something, and seeing the mind-boggling variety of stuff that people do, and just kind of remembering that everyone is just a person always just kind of trying to just be in a way that they hope makes sense to them). The way this gets worded so concisely and so seemingly contradictory here is fantastic.

The pre-confrontation with Ursula is pretty intriguing. It’s interesting how her nudity is (at least the way I see it) used to heighten her contrast with childhood. It’d be real awkward to make a film adaptation of this, though. Last time I thought about that was with Ender’s Game. Remember how much goddamn nudity there is in that book? What the hell is the film adaptation going to look like?

Chapter 11

It’s really interesting how Ursula gives up, but then gives up on giving up in her desperation. And, again, how Lettie – in contrast – can just lay down the motherfucking law.

“All of your chances are used up,” said Lettie, as if she were telling us that the sky was blue.

The power dynamics are a little confusing though, and I’m not entirely certain they’re purposefully so. Lettie isn’t scared of Ursula Monkton because she can call in forces that she is scared of to get rid of her? I dunno, if it were me, I’d find that to be a pretty good reason to be scared of someone. The knowledge that I can set off a bomb in the room we’re in to take out the guy threatening me with a knife doesn’t really make me any less scared, but that seems to be the logic she’s working off of. I’m confused?

Chapter 12

And we’re back to the sense of mostly complete powerlessness, although I guess it’s interesting how he has some agency in it this time? Like he’s not trapped by Ursula Monkton, but rather trapped by his own very limited ability to save himself. I feel like the point where his dad walks up and he’s like “I’m not going to carry you back to the house. You’re too big for that” is kind of a good point of reference for the relatively meh reaction I had to this chapter, like, but he totally still could. Or he can’t because the kid’s actually safe in the fairy ring and all the weapons anyone has are words. So his sister and his father, who we’ve seen express antipathy towards him, aren’t especially interesting. I really liked seeing the opal miner come back though, because although he was always very clearly an asshole, he wasn’t really openly mean towards the narrator in the same way his dad under the control of Ursula Monkton was. And then Ursula Monkton shows up and gah I just have no idea what to think. This wasn’t a great place to break the reading assignments this time.

Speaking of which

Okay, I’m thinking we finish the book for next Saturday, August 24th, which I actually will update on this time. As always, leave comments and talk about these chapters! Talk about stuff I talked about! Talk about stuff you want to talk about! Talk about individual scenes or sentences! Talk about overarching themes! Make crazy guesses as to how the book’s going to end. Why did the narrator not remember any of this story until he returned to the ocean as an adult? Why is it even an ocean? It’s totally not an ocean. Whoever comes up with the craziest theory wins a prize! (Note: the prize will likely be immaterial and really lame)



  1. Bellomy Reply

    Got the book! Cheated and finished it in, like, two days. Sorry. I won’t give it away, though.

    I was kind of disappointed. I found it…well, pretty boring, mostly. I did end up gaining respect for the narrator, starting around when he fought with his father at the bathtub, then gaining even more respect when he had the enormous brass balls to escape from his house with Morton there, then even MORE so after he stood up to his pseudo-Dad in the fairy ring. The narrator is a fucking badass little kid. I feel like if circumstances forced him into being Gavroche he would totally handle that no sweat.

    You said you thought the whole “grown-ups” speech was really awesome. Honestly, I totally disagree. It’s such an overdone moral. The damn Fairly Odd-Parents use this as their aesop all the time – sometimes, if I remember correctly, really well. I remember reading one of those dime a dozen short stories in High School that made this exact same point. Honestly, the only people it’s particularly profound for are kids. Actual adults are living this.

    It’s just…I don’t know. In some ways the lack of an explanation for things really bothered me, but in other ways it worked really well. Not knowing exactly what was going on made things more scary, but this effect was muted in some ways when he was with the Hempstocks. Whenever he was with them I was never remotely worried anything would go wrong. And if Granny Hempstock gets involved, well, then shit’s getting done.

    I actually thought the most suspenseful parts of the book where when he was trying to get out of his house but Ursula Morton was stopping him. I was genuinely frightened, and was just wondering when Lettie was going to show up. At the same time, it was really boring, because he didn’t actually do anything. The extent of what we learned is “Ursula has a sick control over his family and hates him”. Pretty much it. So once again I had this really contradictory feeling about things – I liked some of the effects Gaiman created with the narrative and disliked others.

    It’s an odd book, for sure. For my money, the next book you read HAS to be the Book Thief. One of the best books I’ve ever read, maybe THE best. The narrator is fantastic, and when the ending came you just want to bawl your eyes out. It’s so brilliant and perfect.

    • Bellomy Reply

      Come to think of it, “How I Met Your Mother” actually did the whole “Adults aren’t REALLY different from kids” aesop in an extremely touching way (the sequence of episodes starting from when Marshall’s Dad dies has to be one of the best sitcom story arcs ever written).

      • matthewjulius Reply

        I’d actually argue that the most frightening moments are when the Hempstocks are inaccessible because, oh shit, we don’t have access to our deus ex machina right now, uh oh how do we solve these problems. I was more scared of Ursula than I was of the hunger birds, even though the hunger birds destroyed Ursula like she was nothing. So, yeah, while they every right to be more frightening because they scared the Hempstocks for exactly the reasons you said, I couldn’t really get into “scarier than you can understand” as well as I could “scary because there is nothing you can do”.

    • Bellomy Reply

      And one more. I want to point out, I liked the Hempstocks. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just, once again I got this contradictory effect from them. They’re REALLY cool, but they’re also basically invincible. Gaiman could just pull whatever he wants to out of the Hempstock’s hat and boom, problem solved. At the same time, whenever the Hempstocks were worried, then YOU were worried. Probably the most frightening moment in the entire book is when the hunger birds come and even Lettie is afraid of them. So by making them basically invincible, it also made it that much more frightening when people stood up to them.

      Of course, when Granny was involved, well, you just knew the problem was basically solved.

      • 22aer22 Reply

        HA! “And if Granny Hempstock gets involved, well, then shit’s getting done.” I couldn’t agree more!

    • Judy Reply

      The Book Thief was one of the best books I’ve read as well. It has been 5 or 6 years since I read it so reading it again would be very interesting. The audio version of The Book Thief is amazing, but you miss out on the drawings.

  2. 22aer22 Reply

    I think the adults-are-just-big-kids theme has been done in a lot of places, but I thought this still brought something fresh to it. I think it’s that we’re experiencing this for the first time along with the narrator. Not only that, but we’re experiencing it with him for the first time as his current, adult self is examining the past. I also love the phrasing of it in this section. I always say cliches are good when they’re done right, and while this isn’t necessarily a major cliche, it is something that I’ve seen done multiple times before, which I refuse to believe is a bad thing.

    I also loved that Ursula Monkton wasn’t just threatened by the narrator because he saw through her or wouldn’t eat her tainted food and go under her control. The reason for her hatred is partially that and partially the fact that he’s got part of her way home in there, which makes him dangerous to her. I think that was a really clever storytelling device.

    • Bellomy Reply

      Cliches are fine when done right. This isn’t a cliche though so much as an aesop, and when I read it I just rolled my eyes and thought of “How I Met Your Mother”. Yes, we get it, adults are overgrown kids. Anything interesting to say?

      As for the narrator, that kid is just awesome. Ursula Monkton is freaking the Hell out of him (and rightfully so), but even after being magically caught by her MORE THAN ONCE he STILL has the giant brass balls to go for another escape attempt, and actually MAKE IT OUT. How kick-ass is that? The kid pulls a fucking worm out of his foot and is just like, “Whatevs, it’s just a parasite living in my body. No biggie.” Then he stands up to his own, incredibly intimidating, mind-controlled father more than once! This kid is such a badass.

      The Hempstocks are a really mixed bag in terms of a story-telling device. On one hand, whenever they’re in the book you know something interesting will happen. On the other hand, they can do anything and solve pretty much any problem Gaiman wants them to because he didn’t give them clearly defined powers. So one one hand they’re interesting because we don’t know exactly what they can do, and on the other hand we don’t know exactly what they could do so they serve as a deus ex machina machine, which isn’t cool.

      That’s the feeling I get from this book – this weird dichotomy created by the storytelling devices Gaiman uses. He sacrifices certain aspects of the book in exchange for straightening others.

  3. Judy Reply

    We knew so little about the opal miner at the beginning of the book, but Gaiman was able to establish his selfish shitty assholeness by what he did with the cat. Seeing him again just reinforced it. I liked the fairy ring which just happened to be on the “boy’s” land suggesting old magic in that part of the world. I liked his strength and again his unfailing belief in Lettie.

    The hunger birds reminded me of the Harpies in Greek myth, again referencing the Hempstocks being the god Hecate, thus being able to summon other ancient beings. Even gods feared all the monsters the heros fought. The age old theme of the child being in the adult is done really well here, again echoed in the three as one depiction of the god Hecate.

    I’m interested to see Ender’s Game even with all the brewhaha over the author’s politics. That was also a fantastic book. I’m sure the movie will be different in many ways from the book, just the age of Ender for starters.

  4. AlanTheRobot Reply

    Ugh, it’s killing me knowing the ending. Didn’t comment last time because of it. I hope you guys do this again with a book I haven’t read. Or next time I’ll wait until you’ve read it. I just want to give everything away. Okay, deep breaths. When you do the last post I’ll just mention all the stuff from the other posts that I’ve been keeping in.

    I’m commenting because I want to talk about this:

    “All the magic that the Hempstocks do in this chapter are kind of simultaneously things I like and dislike about the story because it feels like both a brilliant strength and a dumb weakness. After the last four terrifying chapters with Ursula Monkton, where our narrator has been completely powerless, suddenly he’s with the Hempstocks who can fix pretty much any problem with magic we haven’t seen before. And I’m really not sure how I feel about this, because I feel like the constant deus ex machina-ing is cheap storytelling that I should complain about, but the effect it creates is pretty brilliant.”

    And just the whole magic/world of the book. I was just reading about this the other day as a writer and it was fascinating. But basically, there’s two way to go about doing magic in books. Rule based and not rule based. When you do rule based magic as a writer you’re more free to actually USE the magic to solve things. But at the same time it therefore gets less and less mysterious and less magical. It’s not so much magic as it is just a different type of science. You can move away from rule based magic (that is just not explaining it, there might still be rules behind the scenes although it’s uncommon). When you do, the more you rely on that rule-less magic to do things the more it seems like deus-ex machina like you described. So the more mysterious the magic the less it should be used to get characters out of dangerous situations.

    Most books end up doing something in the middle. I think this one leans towards something less explained, but knowing the ending I think it balances out because although it’s used to help the characters well… I can’t spoil it. So I’ll explain next time 🙂

    • matthewjulius Reply

      The rule-based, not rule-based stuff is pretty intriguing! I wouldn’t have expected more rule-based magic to have those limitations on it, but it does make sense when you put it like that.

      I’m certain that how slowly I read this book is slowly killing everyone haha


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