Within a few pages of the first chapter of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” by Neil Gaiman, the tension between reality and myth creates a chilling sense of anticipation. As a physician who treats abused children, I immediately recognized and felt the unmistakable raw dread that accompanies the witnessing of a recovered traumatic memory. Published reviews did not prepare me for the entry into Gaiman’s world of childhood monsters or the beauty of his description of human nature and resilience. The story begins with a man returning to his hometown to attend a funeral. We can only guess that the dead person was important to the man, as he must do a reading at the funeral. Yet, his name and relationship to the deceased remain unknown as the more vivid story from his past resurfaces.
The man’s memory is recalled from the point of view of himself as a 7-year-old boy. We learn of the boy’s, poverty, natural imagination, ability to withdraw from life into the books he reads, and his experiences of being bullied. The story is full of mythical creatures, people who can see and hear him from afar and from inside of his head. Monsters are everywhere in the story, as are the larger-than-life saviors. In my professional work, I have learned that the memory of a child who suffers significant childhood trauma is often colored by the brain’s attempts to make the story whole. The child’s brain, one that is imaginative and creative, will fill in the gaps. Knowing this, the stream of key points of trauma can be strung together by the listener.
The memory becomes unleashed while the man sits at the edge of a pond at the farm at the end of the lane, a pond that was deemed an ocean by his childhood friend. The neighbors: a girl, her mother, and her grandmother, were supportive of the boy during some traumatic and stressful times. He first meets them after he finds the body of his family’s boarder, just after the man committed suicide. The description of the car, the man’s face, the hose leading from the exhaust to the window are exquisitely described. Similarly, a new boarder, who becomes his nanny, is also described in detail. It seems those are meant to be the “real” parts to the memory.
The memory storyline is thick with metaphors. For example, the narcissus flower represents a predominant image woven together with images of boundaries. The neighbors pick the flowers, the father gives them to the nanny, and the boy relates the story of how Narcissus dies staring at his reflection and turns into a flower. He pauses to think, “I had imagined that a narcissus must be the most beautiful flower in the world. I was disappointed when I learned that it was just a less impressive daffodil.” This foreshadows his ability to see through at least one of his monsters. The nanny, with the somewhat villainous name of “Ursula,” is a monster narcissist. The boy identifies her (described as a pain in his heart) as evil, but the family succumbs to her deception. With each of his attempts to point out her true nature to his parents his situation worsens, and the relationship with his parents deteriorates. Although the story has characteristics of a fable, the description of the course of toxic relationships and its effects on other relationships is powerfully realistic. The narcissist’s “need” for him, as a portal to her other world, is a symbol for how boundaries are crossed by narcissists.
As a child abuse pediatrician, I noticed the authenticity of the boy’s conflicted feelings of love toward his father despite his father’s abusive behavior and anger. If you read the book, think carefully about the description of the boy’s dream, the shilling the boy finds in his throat, the choking, and the fact that his grandfather was in his dream.
I read this book in a half day, and then I read it again. Unlike the man, whose memory was eventually “snipped out” by the neighbor grandmother only to be recovered later, this story will stay with me for a long time.
Professor Ann S. Botash, MD is a pediatric specialist in the care and treatment of abused children. She is also associate dean for education at Upstate. She won a Bruce Dearing Writing Award this year for a short story called “Whistling Willies Love Song.”