“I held on to Ginnie Hempstock. She smelled like a farm and like a kitchen, like animals and like food. She smelled very real, and the realness was what I needed at that moment.” –Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The novel, like many fantasy novels, is about good and evil. But masterfully—pointedly?—Neil Gaiman casts the large-scale drama of frightening, abusive forces against the forces of kindness and sacrifice in the little theatre of domestic life. It’s all on one lane, this drama, set in a family house, a farmhouse, and the little patch of land in between. It’s a seven-year-old boy who participates in the fantastical adventure, too: there’s a kind of little theatre there, in a narrator who still needs looking after.
As I read the book and just after, that’s what impressed me most—the scale. It was the drama of fantasy-novel proportions set in a family story. The wily, scary tactics of the antagonist are aimed at breaking up a family. And the savior who saves this boy and his family? It’s three generations of Hempstock females living on an old-fashioned farm: an ancient granny, a strong middle-aged woman, and a young girl. And it’s not only their mystical powers and heroic care that saves the boy. Their home is a place of sanctuary and salvation.
And that’s what, after I returned the book to its place on the bookshelf, emerged as most precious about the story. All the scenes in the Hempstock farmhouse had warm, rich hues in my mind, even brighter and more memorable than the bizarre, fascinating elements. It was the farmhouse with its whitewashed walls, jug of daffodils, flagstone floors, and warm hearth that I took away from the book and held close. Like the young boy observes, as he finds refuge in the house after a horrible escape, “I felt safe. It was as if the essence of grandmotherliness had been condensed into that one place, that one time.”
Maybe I remember the farmhouse scenes because of the meals served there. I don’t think this is accidental (or because I happen to love food). Gaiman crafts the description of food that these ladies serve with extra, superb detail; it’s as if the camera slows so that we can take in every loving dish that the Hempstock ladies made. The boy’s first meal is paper-thin pancakes, rolled up with lemon juice and plum jam. Before he leaves, granny Hempstock slips him what must be one of the most comforting treats imaginable, a little saucer of honeycomb and cream. Another time the young boy—arriving to the house freezing wet—drinks hot, rich broth in a warm bath. How comforting does that sound, liquid warmth within and without? Another meal is roast beef and potatoes, buttered nettles, “blackened and sweet” carrots, and a gorgeous, homey apple pie with thick yellow custard. After a breakfast of toast and homemade blackberry jam, thick porridge with cream, and rich black tea, the young boy feels like he could purr, as the kitten beside him does—the feeling of utter contentment.
Why would Gaiman spend such care describing the homey details of hospitality? I think it’s because, when epic fantasy unfolds in the reality of a domestic drama, hospitality—genuine, caring, expressive hospitality—emerges as a primary force of goodness that does defeat evil. Making a safe, cozy, cheerful space in the dark, cold, abusive world is not a small thing. It’s kindness at its most practical and welcoming. It’s refuge for those—and that’s all of us—who need a touch of looking after. Like the boy realizes, as evil forces whip and howl around him, as he’d held close by the middle-aged Ginnie Hempstock, her kitchen and the food made there, are real things. That’s sometimes exactly what we need to provide, and what we need to receive. In the big drama of evil and good, a place at the table is, truly, sanctuary.
I pass by the novel on my bookshelf, and it reminds me of all this. May the “essence of grandmotherliness” thrive in my Los Angeles apartment.