Today the duck and I want to tell you about one of our favorite books: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. When Ch, our phenomenal pumpkin pilgrimage pal, recommended it to us some time ago, she said: “I’m not going to describe it to you, but I think that you’ll like it.” We loved it! We particularly loved reading about all the foods the narrator gets to eat; our favorite is a bowl of porridge with blackberry jam and cream that precedes the series of mysterious events that the story focuses on. In fact, when we reread this perfectly pleasing porridge passage recently, we knew that we had to attempt to recreate this beautiful breakfast. So, that’s what will accompany today’s friend recommendation post.Here’s a photo of the duck admiring our pretty porridge that turned out just how we had imagined it when we read about it; this might be our favorite recommendation accompaniment so far (probably because it’s so simple and hard to mess up).
I agree with Ch that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of those novels that you shouldn’t know too much about before you read it. This is why, rather than going into the details of the plot, the duck and I want to talk about some of our favorite themes, descriptions, and mental images we had while reading this book:
Not your typical ocean, not your typical childhood story
The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells a fantastical, magical, mysterious, but also dark and scary story about childhood through the memories of the unnamed narrator, who suddenly recalls a chain of events from when he was seven years old as he sits by the ocean at the end of the lane. The duck and I have a weakness for stories about childhood, so of course, we enjoyed reading about how the narrator makes sense of the world around him as a child. Childhood is often romanticized as a time of wonder, perceived freedom, and an innocent understanding of the world. The childhood described in the Ocean at the End of the Lane does feature elements of curiosity, imagination, and naivete. But it also describes feelings of powerlessness, isolation, and an overall skepticism of adults’ behavior and motivations. One of my favorite examples of this mix of innocence and darkness is the 7-year-old narrator’s fear of anatomy; he heard this word for the first time in a grim context, so now it denotes everything evil he imagines or encounters. The first time the duck and I ate proper porridge, it was love at first taste! Despite oatmeal being the duck and my go-to breakfast, I hadn’t made stovetop porridge in years (because of laziness), which is why I was super excited when I collected all the ingredients I thought I might need for recreating (a dairy-free version of) our favorite breakfast in the Ocean at the End of the Lane: oatmeal, oat milk, homemade blackberry jelly (that’s the closest we got to homemade blackberry jam), oat cream, salt, as well as brown sugar, honey and frozen blackberries as potential add-ins.I find it curious how much the duck and I love how food is described in this book. See, Neil Gaiman doesn’t use flowery language with an abundance of adjectives when it comes to meals. I suspect the vivid mental images the story evokes (for us) are to blame for the intense food envy the duck and I feel whenever we read about what the narrator eats at the farm with the ocean at the end of the lane. The narrator does explain at some point that even though he doesn’t miss his childhood, he does miss how he could find pure joy in little things, like eating a simple but delicious meal. Apparently, reading about simple but delicious meals, especially in stories with vividly described nature and fantasy elements, has the same effect on the duck and me. As does watching in anticipation while, in a small pot, 1/2 cup of oatmeal, 1 and 1/4 cup of water, 1/4 cup of oat milk, and a pinch of salt come to a boil and slowly turn into porridge. For a runnier result use more liquid, and for a denser one, more oatmeal.I mentioned before how the Ocean at the End of the Lane is not your typical carefree story about childhood. In fact, the narrator isn’t your typical child (if something like that even exists), which seems to be why he feels such skepticism, even disdain, about how adults treat him. He explains that as a child, he had trouble making friends. So he spent most of his free time reading books, preferably about fantastical worlds and nature. His love for being outside reflects in his descriptions of the things he comes across there in beautiful (and sometimes horrifying) detail. In fact, despite the duck and my being dedicated homebodies, I believe it’s this colorful portrayal of nature that evoked those mental images that made me crave the foods the narrator eats and that stayed with me long after I had started forgetting details about the action (there is one scene, in particular, involving a full moon, that had become the mental image I had whenever I thought about this book. When I reread it I was surprised at the amount of detail I had remembered it in). It was our love for food that made us want to prepare stovetop porridge. After we had cooked it on low heat for about ten minutes, stirring frequently and brewing a sad and watery excuse for a cup of tea in between, the duck and I decided to add a tiny bit of brown sugar even though there’s no mention of it in the book – because that’s how we ate our porridge the first time we had it and today’s recommendation accompaniment is all about delicious memories.
Memories play a significant role in this story which is constructed in such a way that even though there is an adult narrator who recalls events from his childhood, you get the feeling that you experience everything with him as he is seven years old with the mind of a seven-year-old. There are only a few instances where he clearly speaks as an adult when he comments on a thing or two he didn’t know or understand yet, back then. Even though the narrator’s story is full of strange occurrences, the duck and I never wondered whether the wondrous things he remembers actually happened; we readily accepted the mysterious world that Neil Gaiman has created in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, just like the narrator seems to. We found it much harder to accept that our porridge would taste better if we waited for it to cool down for a few minutes before transferring it to our chosen breakfast bowl. At least that gave us some time to collect all the toppings we wanted to use and some that we were still considering: the blackberry jam and oat cream for an almost literal recreation, the blackberries for garnish, and honey in case we wanted more sweetness (because honey is mentioned in other food descriptions in the book – this time we actually didn’t feel like we needed it, though).
While the story is set in England, it’s an England where lots of inexplicable things happen that only the narrator seems to notice – until he meets the family that lives on the farm at the end of the lane. The duck and I always find it interesting to see how the depiction or description of things we cannot easily perceive or understand is handled in works of fiction (like that visually labyrinthine sequence toward the end of Interstellar). In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the narrator experiences many unexplainable things. And the duck and I love how he tries to make sense of what he sees even though his senses tell him otherwise. There is one situation, for example, when a thing looks small to the narrator but, at the same time, gigantic. In another one, he sees something but as soon as he looks away, he can’t visually recall what he saw, only what he thought of it. Trying to imagine all that made the duck and me just as confused as the narrator seems to be at that moment, and we love it! We also LOVE how our porridge looked after we had added a lump of blackberry jelly, poured a big helping of oat cream over it, mixed it all up, and then added the blackberries that were now nicely thawed. Reading about a cozy bowl of porridge and imagining it in vivid detail is one thing; actually recreating and eating it with all the images of the story in my head, thus appealing to more than one sense, was a truly immersive experience! If only the tea had been less watery!
Strangely, this was one of the most enjoyable experiences the duck and I have had this year. The porridge was much creamier than the microwave oatmeal we usually eat for breakfast; the sweetness was just right, even without the honey. If you’ve never had porridge or haven’t had it in a while, why not treat yourself to some? I imagine it’s extra tasty in fall or winter or on a pleasantly rainy day!
If you ask the duck and me, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book for every season. The first time we read it in fall, and the second time in spring. Both times it was a great and immersive experience! If you like reading fantasy with vivid descriptions of nature and (British) food, as well as stories about childhood and memories and don’t mind one or the other scary element (the duck and I tend to avoid most horror, but we like Stranger Things and The Ocean at the End of the Lane – a lot), this book might be just what you were looking for. If you’ve read it a few years ago and liked it, the duck and I highly recommend rereading it because, for us, the second read was very different from the first. Gosh, we might even read it a third time in a few years. In the meantime, we’ll have lots of delicious blackberry-cream porridge!
What about you? Are you as in love with porridge as the duck and I are? What is your favorite book that you’ve read more than once?
We’d love to know (almost as much as we loved this porridge)!