What is it with Neil Gaiman and mothers?
I am in the midst of listening to the wonderful The Ocean at the End of the Lane – personally, I think that this book is going to be a clear favourite from Gaiman who is already one of my favourite authors! – read by Gaiman himself.
Thus far, our narrator (does he have a name? I can’t recall it) has returned to his childhood home for a funeral (whose? His mother’s or father’s?) and has started to recall (and recount) his experiences when he was seven with Lettie Hempstock of Hempstock farm.
In very brief summary, therefore, the narrator’s parents have had to let out his room to, amongst other people, an Opal Miner who ran over a cat and also stole the narrator’s father’s car to commit suicide in.
It appears that something vast, ancient and primal was awakened by the opal miner’s death and decided to make everyone happy by giving them money. So coins are flung at people, forced down their throats in their dreams and money appears mysteriously in wives’ purses when their husbands dream of them prostituting themselves leading to somewhat “difficult” breakfast conversations.
Already echoes of other Gaiman tales reverberate around just that summary: Coraline‘s Other Mother, whose motives for wanting to keep Coraline are as ambiguous as this creature’s; the blurring of the boundaries between dreams, fantasy and reality which parallel Sandman; and the existence of another primal, dangerous and mysterious world beneath or alongside our own is typical Gaiman recalling American Gods, Neverwhere, Stardust and Coraline.
The alternate, old world is – to my taste at least – more successful here than in other books. Whilst I recognise and respond to Gaiman’s own sensitivity to great and iconic liminal imagery of the wall or the door or of Door, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the path seems to be his image of choice. Not the rigid paths that adults follow but the paths which children explore and are signposted with the colours of nature. There is a fantastic paragraph as the narrator is seeking to slip out of the house which starts
“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, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”
But back to the mother.
Our narrator is present when Lettie Hemstock (a timeless eleven year old maiden living with a mother and a crone in what one might call a coven) binds the creature. He is distracted momentarily and becomes infected with a worm. In his foot. And, inadvertently, he brings this worm back home.
After a beautifully visceral description of him trying to extract the worm and how it felt as the worm fought back clinging to the inside of his flesh, he flushes it down the drain. Schoolboy error! The next day, his mother receives a job offer and Ursula Monkton arrives to housekeep. Ursula Monkton whose clothes are the same colours as the flesh of the worm. Ursula Monkton who is idolised by his sister and who seduces his father. Ursula Monkton, his other mother, his surrogate mother, his (potentially) evil step mother.
The parallels thus far with Coraline are fairly clear.
I’ve always felt that Coraline epitomised the negotiations between children and their mothers: the real mother being distracted and distant; the other mother cloyingly possessive. There was a sense of growing up, of maturing, of a child recognising that her mother was a person as well as a mother. The other mother identified herself as nothing other than a mother and becomes horrific as a result.
Freudian interpretation of Coraline could run amok: the needles required to sew buttons into her eyes echo Oedipus’ violation of the mother-child relationship, perhaps Freud’s most iconic condition; the diminution and submission of the other father as symbolic of Coraline’s prime rival for her mother’s attention; the passage between the house and other house becoming increasingly moist and organic as the other mother’s desperation for Coraline grows until it becomes almost a birth canal.
The way I read it – and I am at heart a simple soul – is this: the mother, like all of us real-world parents, is juggling life, a career, a relationship and a child and Coraline misses the primal bond between mother and daughter. When I adopted my children, I was encouraged to read a book entitled The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. It is an exploration of the effect of the separation of mother and child in the adoption process, even in babies removed from the mother immediately on birth. There are echoes of that in Coraline: the daughter has realised that she is not the only thing in her mother’s life and that hurts.
When offered a form of that bond from the other mother she is, naturally, tempted but wise enough to see that to give in would be to surrender her identity as an individual and to become nothing more than an object, a part of another rather than her own person. She learns through the book to accept her mother as the distracted and divided person she is because that allows Coraline herself the space to grow.
Having just become a father, I can remember that at some point our mind set shifted from my wife being pregnant to my wife carrying our baby. At some point our baby came to be viewed as separate from, albeit contained within, my wife.
For a detailed exploration of the Freudian in Coraline, An Eye For an I is a good read!
And, yes, I do read things like this online! For fun!
I’m not sure yet how the surrogate mother will develop in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Nor how significant the different gender of the narrator will become. She’s certainly predatory. And the scene where she manipulates the father into nearly drowning his son in the bath was horrifying at a very different level to Coraline‘s gothic horror.
There is one very powerful word that I just came across in The Ocean at the End of the Lane: inviolable.
“My parents were a unit, inviolable. The future had suddenly become unknowable: anything could happen: the train of my life had jumped the rails and headed off across the fields”
Ursula Monkton violated the inviolable, his parents’ relationship. Actually, that’s wrong. Through Ursula Monkton, the father had violated the inviolable:
“I thought of my father, his arms around the housekeeper-who-wasn’t, kissing her neck…. I was scared by what it meant that my father was kissing the neck of Ursula Monkton, that his hands had lifted her midi skirt above her waist.” (my emphasis)
Is the sexual infidelity – the violation of the inviolable – a similarly cathartic experience to that which Coraline went through? Is the breaking of the family unit echoed in the breaking up of the family land and home?
Will the mother charge back to rescue her family?
And, whilst we’re on fathers, what is it with Gaiman and fathers who can’t cook? Coraline’s father concocts things from recipes rather than tins; the father here buys thick wholemeal bread and burns it when making toast.
Listening to this as an audiobook on the way to school, my stepson looked at me and smirked when that was read out!