Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman


Written by: Neil Gaiman

Published: 2002

Synopsis: Coraline's often wondered what's behind the locked door in the drawing room. It reveals only a brick wall when she finally opens it, but when she tries again later, a passageway mysteriously appears. Coraline is surprised to find a flat decorated exactly like her own, but strangely different. And when she finds her "other" parents in this alternate world, they are much more interesting despite their creepy black button eyes. When they make it clear, however, that they want to make her theirs forever, Coraline begins a nightmarish game to rescue her real parents and three children imprisoned in a mirror. With only a bored-through stone and an aloof cat to help, Coraline confronts this harrowing task of escaping these monstrous creatures.

Challenges: RIP VIII

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

When I sat down and started reading Coraline I thought I might have made a terrible mistake, because this book seemed really, really young. The language is simple, very "this is Coraline. She likes to explore. Watch her explore", which is fine if you're reading to an actual child but not so great when you're 26 years old. But because I know so many people who adore this book I persevered, and I'm glad I did because Neil Gaiman was being a big ol' trickster, tricking me into thinking it would be like BSC: Little Sister and not one of the scariest books I've read all year.

The book does begin very simply. Coraline is bored. She's a kid on holiday in a house-turned-apartments inhabited by old people with theatrical eccentricities. At first she passes the days exploring the grounds, going past the dilapidated tennis court, through the smelly fairy ring of mushrooms and out by the well. But since it's England, the weather is really foul and she finds herself stuck in the house, with nothing to explore and even less to do. And then things become a little less simple. As she heads through a passageway which had always been bricked up before, she comes into a house very similar to her own, only different. Her parents are there, except they're not her parents, they're her Other Mother and Other Father and they "love her very, very much". The book then basically becomes a quest where Coraline needs to beat the Other Mother in a contest so that she can save her real mother and father and go back to life on the other side of the door.

It's a book full of creepy fairytale fun, there's a sardonic cat (is there any other kind?) that can talk in the Other world, three ghost children who were captured by the Other Mother, a rock with a hole that shows through the Other World's magic, and a lot of black buttons for eyes. It reminded me a lot of A Nightmare Before Christmas, that same mix of creepy Halloween with harmless childhood aesthetics. And it really was frightening. In the same way clowns and ventriloquist dolls have been transformed into something malicious and horrifying, I will never be able to look at dolls with button eyes the same way again. Maybe it was more frightening because I was lulled into the children's tale at the start of the book, but as the tension ramped up as Coraline sped through her quest I was flipping pages as fast as possible, my heart halfway up my throat. And when I finished I actually wondered how I would have handled this book if I'd read it as an 8 year old. I'm almost certain I would have had nightmares, but I'm equally sure that I would have loved the thrill of the story and Gaiman's brilliant imagery.

Neil Gaiman does a wonderful job writing about a child. Sure I haven't been 8 for a few years now, but that didn't stop me from nodding sagely and saying "of course" when I read this passage;
“On the first day Coraline's family moved in, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible made a point of telling Coraline how dangerous the well was, and they warned her to be sure she kept away from it. So Coraline set off to explore for it, so that she knew where it was, to keep away from it properly.”
But more than that he does a great job of showing just how boring and lonely it can be being a child with busy parents. Coraline's parents may work from home, but they barely seem to notice her when she comes into their offices to talk or look for something to do. They repeatedly hand her a piece of paper and a biro and a curt suggestion to "count the number of doors in the house" or list the "number of blue things". To poor little Coraline their busyness and distraction is synonymous with a lack of love so it's no wonder she made her way through that door and down the corridor, and that the Other Mother was so successful luring Coraline over at first;
“Nothing’s changed. You’ll go home. You’ll be bored. You’ll be ignored. No one will listen to you, really listen to you. You’re too clever and too quiet for them to understand. They don’t even get your name right.”

So I'm going to join the crowd of people shouting at you to read Coraline and Neil Gaiman's other children's books (The Graveyard Shift was also awesome) because yes, you most definitely need to buy, borrow or steal a copy of this IMMEDIATELY. It's the perfect dark fairytale whimsy for an October read. But if you're thinking of reading this to your kids, maybe give it a look over first and check that it won't be too creepy for them.

*illustrations by Dave McKean, in the 2008 Harper Entertainment edition


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