Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Illustrations by Dave McKean
Published in 2002
Genre: Children’s literature, fantasy
“Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.”
No one seems to get Coraline’s name right. Though, this may be expected when the adults in her life seldom pay much attention to her in general. About a precocious and intelligent little girl, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline initially follows the mundane account of a lonely child stuck inside during summer break due to bad weather. She explores the house that her family lives in and meets the neighbors, but it isn’t until she sees a door that leads to (what seems to be) nothing but a brick wall that things turn truly interesting, though not necessarily for the better.
It may come as no surprise that when confronted with as mysterious a portal as the door, Coraline becomes curious about what could possibly be on the other side. One night, she wakes to discover that there is a dark hallway in the place of the brick wall that leads to a mirrored, albeit creepier, version of her world. After making the trek through the forbidding abyss, she meets her other mother and other father; parodies of her real parents with black buttons eyes (That’s not figurative language. They literally have black button eyes. Ready or not, here comes the creepiness). They promise her endless entertainment and love, as well as feasts of delicious food and eternal happiness. Coraline, following a sick feeling at these promises, declines and begins the game of cat and mouse that follows.
Gaiman’s trademark love for the macabre flows through this book, connecting superstitions and the idea of very old creatures living in the shadows of the world. Spiders crawl within the edges of sight, beetles are devoured by the other mother like potato chips (or crisps if you are more inclined toward Engligh-English speaking countries), a black cat helps Coraline in her adventures and the melancholy ghosts of children devoured by the other mother make their appearance in her time of need.
Though this book precedes The Graveyard Book (shameless review plug) in publication, many similar themes and elements come to the fore.The most significant theme in Coraline is bravery and how it is defined. Before going to save her parents from the arachnid clutches of the other mother, Coraline recounts a story to the black cat about her and her father stumbling upon a wasps nest by accident. He voluntarily stayed put and was stung by the wasps in order to buy her enough time to get away safely. However, he dropped his glasses during the initial attack and had to return for them later. It was during the second trip that he defines bravery not as the absence of fear, but being afraid and doing what is right despite that.
Mirrors and mirrored versions of people play a large part in Coraline. When her parents go missing, it is in the reflection of a mirror that Coraline sees them before they disappear. She is later trapped behind a mirror with the ghosts of the other mother’s previous victims. When the other mother walks through the mirror as though it were nothing more than air, Coraline comments on this and is told not to trust mirrors. This is quite an ironic statement for a mirrored image of her mother to tell her. The little differences that Coraline picks out about the other house and its inhabitants help her to adapt and overcome the dangers she faces.
Coraline may very well be one of my favorite characters. She is smart, sarcastic, and believably human. When confronted by the scary tasks ahead of her, she takes a moment to tell herself that she isn’t afraid and then immediately acknowledges that doing so didn’t work. Her authenticity is easy to identify with and she is a person I would love to have met in real life. She even outwits the other mother’s last attempts to get the key to the door, with very little help from adults. I think the beauty of Gaiman’s writing is in not only the vivid worlds he creates, but the realistic people and creatures inhabiting them.
I read the 10th anniversary edition which included illustrations by David McKean, much like the version of The Graveyard Book I reviewed. These drawings once again (or maybe initially since it was published first) helped to visualize the characters and pointed out key frames of the scenes. There was one image in particular that sent chills down my spine and made me question whether or not I would read the book with a child, though I suppose this would be a chance for me to practice the story’s brand of bravery.
For a character whose genesis came from the misspelling of the name Caroline, Coraline leaves a lasting impression and is a role model for the young and old regardless of gender. Everyone can relate to being bored or ignored or feeling like others don’t appreciate them. Sometimes we just need a chance to see how good we have things to truly realize that it isn’t all that bad, especially if that chance is a malevolent creature that imitates your mother but with shiny black button-eyes and an obsessive urge to love you.
Verdict: 4 creepy rhyming rats out of 5
Recommended for: Little boys and girls in need of a good story, children ages 8 and up, fans of dark fantasy, and you!
Not recommended for: Little boys and girls not in need of a good story, children ages 7 and below, the other mother, or people afraid of creepy yet appropriate illustrations.