For this week’s first-page examination, we’re going to dive into my favorite book that I listened to last year—The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. What made this book extra special was hearing the author read his own story. Not only does he have a beautiful voice; he’s an exceptional actor and brings richness to his story through his character portrayals.
Clearly an author would be the best person to read aloud his own book, knowing how and where to emphasize just the right words in the right way. But some authors, I imagine, are terrible narrators. Not so Neil Gaiman.
And, of course, all the marvelous acting skills an author may have won’t do much to gloss over a lousy book. Thankfully, in Gaiman’s case, his terrific oration is the sweet icing on a terrific cake of a story.
If asked, I wouldn’t know what genre to call this. It tops the Amazon charts in Science-Fiction/Fantasy, Coming of Age, Literature/Genre Fiction, and Contemporary Fiction (that last one is puzzling to me).
So what’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane about, and why do I rank it up there as one of the top ten novels I’ve ever read in my life?
Where to start? I could write an entire book on why this novel is so gorgeous. The writing itself, the characters, the story idea—it’s all stunning. It speaks to deep universal themes in a poignant and strikingly honest and simple storytelling manner.
Gaiman hasn’t written many novels, and this was only his second for adults. Some of you may have seen the very creative movie rendition of his book Stardust (which featured a hilarious role by Robert De Niro as the cross-dressing pirate).
Here’s the gist of the plot:
A never-named fiftyish narrator is back in his childhood homeland, rural Sussex, England, where he’s just delivered the eulogy at a funeral. With “an hour or so to kill” afterward, he drives about—aimlessly, he thinks—until he arrives at a farmhouse with a duck pond. There, when he was seven, lived the Hempstocks: a crone, a housewife, and an eleven-year-old girl, who said they were grandmother, mother, and daughter. He recalls in a reverie how he became the vector for a malign force attempting to invade and waste our world. The three Hempstocks are guardians, from time almost immemorial, situated to block such forces and, should that fail, fight them. His is a past (says the front matter of the book) “too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.”
So let’s look at Gaiman’s first page of The Ocean at the End of the Lane:
It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn’t very big.
Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country.
Her mother said that Lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk.
Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country.
She said the really old country had blown up.
I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult. Today they gave me comfort of a kind. I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.
I had done my duty in the morning, spoken the words I was meant to speak, and I meant them as I spoke them, and then, when the service was done, I got in my car and I drove, randomly, without a plan, with an hour or so to kill before I met more people I had not seen for years and shook more hands and drank too many cups of tea from the best china. I drove along winding Sussex country roads I only half-remembered, until I found myself headed toward the town center, so I turned, randomly, down another road, and took a left, and a right. It was only then that I realized where I was going, where I had been going all along, and I grimaced at my own foolishness.
I had been driving toward a house that had not existed for decades.
I thought of turning around, then, as I drove down a wide street that had once been a flint lane beside a barley field, of turning back and leaving the past undisturbed. But I was curious.
The old house, the one I had lived in for seven years, from when I was five until I was twelve, that house had been knocked down and was lost for good.
So let’s look at the first-page checklist and see how this opening measures up.
Why This Works
Opening Hook: The first lines about the pond not only tie in with the title but the rich themes and motifs found in the book. The pond being an ocean raises a bit of curiosity, but not a lot. However, it sets the stage for the premise.
Introduction of main character in first few lines: While the narrator is not named, we are clearly in his mind and hear his voice. We know he’s a man by the situation he’s in (giving a speech at a funeral for some unnamed person). We don’t learn much about him, but he comes across a bit empathetic with his discomfort and capacity for self-denigration (“I grimaced at my own foolishness”).
Starting the story in the middle of something that’s happened (or happening): The opening bit hints at something important that had happened long ago, implying it has importance in this story (the really old country had blown up). And with the prologue we are right into action, with the character having spoken at a funeral and now is driving randomly, only to arrive at the place where something horrific and magical happened to him as a boy (though we don’t know that yet).
A nod to setting; avoid excessive exposition or narrative: The story begins with narrative, but it’s done in a “showing” way rather than just telling information. We get a bit of setting with Sussex and the country roads, but not an overwhelming amount.
A catalyst, inciting incident, or complication introduced for your character: The funeral is the catalyst for sending him back to his childhood home. No complication sets this off, but, in a sense, one is created by his return to the place of hidden (or blocked) memories of a frightening past.
A hint at character’s immediate intentions: Yes, he wants to get through the funeral and get away to clear his head.
A hint at character’s hidden need, desire, goal, dream, fear: Well, his hidden need is hidden from himself, for sure, but it leads him back to his childhood home. We sense there is some need there in his revisiting his past, which is common with an event such as a funeral, which brings up a lot of memories and nostalgia.
Unique voice/writing style: Gaiman’s writing is wholly simplistic and to the point. Sparse, he uses a beautiful economy of words, which is important in this story that is mostly told by the character as a young boy.
Setting the tone for the book: Yes, the writing sets the tone, with its clear and straightforward storytelling style.
A glimpse at character’s personal history, personality—shed light on motivation: We know someone he cared about died, and he feels a sense of obligation and propriety in attending the funeral. His personality comes across sensitive and empathetic. His motivation is to do the right thing and behave as expected. Yet he also has a need to understand things below the surface.
Hint of character’s initial plot goal: He seems to need to find answers, explore his past, or revisit memories. Something is compelling him, so he ends up at his childhood home.
A course of action/decision implied. Introduction of high stakes/dramatic tension: His decision to drive is what leads him to his past memories. No real stakes or dramatic tension this early in the story.
Good pacing; jump right into present action: While narrative, the action moves solidly along, with a brief nod to the funeral, then getting the character driving and arriving at the lane where he once lived. That’s all we need to get him there to begin the story of his childhood years.
- One characteristic to reveal that makes your character heroic and vulnerable: His finding a bit of comfort in the formal clothing and his feeling foolish driving back to his childhood home.
- One element of mystery, something hinted at that raises curiosity: The opening bit about the duck pond being an ocean and the strange discussion with the Hempstocks over the old country, where they came from. Implies it is not a country of this world.
- One element out of the ordinary, unusual, that makes the book different/stand out: The opening section about the pond is unusual and intriguing. We get the feeling the character’s former neighbors are not all that ordinary.
- Concise, catchy dialogue (if in the first scene) that is not boring or predictable: No dialogue.
- A hint at theme: Nothing here yet, though the ocean and pond are strong motifs in the story.
What Could Have Been Better
I cringed at the thought of having to write this section because I love this book so much. Many UK authors’ books (Ian McEwan’s, for example) often have a slower draw into the story than those written by US novelists. Maybe it’s that slower pace, allowing the time for a hundred indecisions and revisions “before the taking of a toast and tea” as T. S. Eliot so nicely put in his famous poem.
For those who’d rather get right into fast action or danger or mystery before drinking two cups of tea, this opening may feel a little slow. But some of us like to be wooed into a story rather than hooked with some sharp barb and dragged at breakneck speed across the floor.
I really like the opening bit, but, knowing the whole story, I would like to have had it be a little more about the pond and the mystery around both the ocean and a hint at the Hempstocks” magical place in the world rather than about the old country. While the old country is an important piece of the Hempstocks’ past, it’s not so important in the actual story, and I think a bit more mystery could have been created by hinting more at the terrifying developments to come.
I love Gaiman’s simplistic style, and as I listened to his narration, it came across perfect for this book. I would prefer to get a more adult feel from his character in this prologue when he’s in the adult voice. The adult and the child (most of the book is told in the child’s young voice) sound too much alike, but maybe that was Gaiman’s intention—to perhaps show the boy in the man, or that the man is still the same innocent, impressionable person he was when a child. This, however, isn’t a big problem to me, or really a problem at all with page one.
I may have added in a little more tension with him randomly driving and realizing where he ends up. He could have some unsettling feeling, some compulsion and inner conflict about being here (because he can’t access, at this point, those powerful, scary memories, but they are there, pressing him to remember). I would like a sense of this to make me aware that something happened here, something big. Stephen King is good at setting up this kind of tension, and I think, if anything, this is what the first page could use.
I can’t think of anything else I would do differently here. His writing style makes me want to wrap up in a fuzzy blanket by a toasty fire and listen attentively.
Don’t miss this outstanding novel! Even if you’re not a fantasy fan, take a chance and experience this world Gaiman has created. The emotions and themes he explores break through any genre and are worth exploring—if you dare.
And treat yourself to the audiobook version here, which will transport you somewhere amazing you’ve never been before.
Your thoughts on this opening page? Would you keep reading? What would you do differently?
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