A Review of Coraline by Neil Gaiman

The whole tone is a bit Alice in Wonderland like, and even has a talking cat, silly songs, cryptic messages, characters that metamorphosis, and the kind of almost surreal play between waking and dreaming, life and death, shadow and light which made Gaiman’s Sandman comic series so popular.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Coraline
by Neil Gaiman
Bloomsbury
September 2002, softcover, 171 pages
ISBN 0-7475-5878-7
RRP$A14.95

Everyone is getting in on the act. It used to be that writers of “young adult” books were considered an inferior sub-set of the more serious authors of grown up novels. I can recall interviewing one time writer of teen books turned adult novelist Sue Gough, who told me that her teen books opened no doors for her as an adult novelist – in effect she had to start from scratch, and she also mentioned that she used to get the cold shoulder when describing herself as an author of children’s books at writing retreats or parties. Those days are obviously over. Serious prize winning novelists like Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, Clive Barker, Tony Morrison and Neil Gaiman are all writing books for the teen set. Why? Well, perhaps, as Chabon has hinted, there is a kind of marvellous freedom when writing for a younger audience – you can incorporate elements of fantasy, can play with context and time and can have a bit more fun than you would with adult fiction. Novelists like Chabon and Gaiman have their own children and may be reading literature aimed at their kids age group – as a writer what you read can certainly impact on what you write. It is also compelling to produce work which is for your children. Even if it doesn’t get published, you have a ready market – Coraline is dedicated to both of Gaiman’s daughters. Finally, I suspect that it is fairly lucrative at the moment, perhaps more so than the adult fiction market. In Gaiman’s case, the film rights to Coraline have already been sold to the creator of James and the Giant Peach, Henry Selick, who will distribute the film through Miramax. Not bad for a book which would likely have taken Gaiman a lot less time and through a lot less personal investment than say, producing American Gods, Gaiman’s previous novel (Read our review of American Gods)

Although fairly light, and a very easy read for adults (I read through the book in an hour or so), Coraline is a lot of fun, and a nice combination of compelling and scary. Coraline is a young girl who has moved, with her distracted and busy parents, to a very old house, which they shared with some other unusual tenants – two retired thespian spinsters downstairs, and a crazy old man training a mouse circus upstairs, all of whom continue to call her Caroline. Coraline is a natural explorer, and spends lots of her summer holiday exploring the gardens, including dangerous covered over well. While exploring the house, she comes upon a locked door, behind which is a brick wall. Ignoring a number of muted “warnings” (one of which comes from her upstairs neighbour’s mice), she takes down the big key, opens the door, finds the wall gone and enters into a kind of parallel universe, where her “other” parents have big black button eyes, and her “other” neighbours, toys and house are just a little bit wrong. Her “other” parents desperately want her to stay and offer her the kind of excitement she has been craving, including food she likes and toys which are “alive” as an incentive to stay with them. The button eyes is a really good touch, which hints at a familiar nightmare image – for Coraline to stay with her “other” parents forever, she must allow them to sew buttons on her eyes. She soon decides that this is not the world for her, but upon her return to the “real” world discovers her parents are missing and has to go back to the “other” world to find them.

Coraline is a well drawn, brave and funny girl, and there are enough comical touches to keep an adult interested, including Coraline’s father’s attempts at cooking gourmet style meals, the spinster’s references to Macbeth and Coraline’s judgement of her parents’ poor taste in furnishings. The whole tone is a bit Alice in Wonderland like, and even has a talking cat, silly songs, cryptic messages, characters that metamorphosis, and the kind of almost surreal play between waking and dreaming, life and death, shadow and light which made Gaiman’s Sandman comic series so popular. As with any good book for young adults there is also a decent moral, and although it is a much quicker one than you would find in an adult novel, Coraline does go on a journey of self-realisation and comes to understand something important about what matters in life by the end of the story. Her parents change a bit too, although they don’t recall their ordeal, and in the end are simply adults with all of the limitations in both taste and perception that adults have, albeit real adults.

If you are looking for a good book aimed at the 9-14 year old set which won’t overtax them, or lose their interest, Coraline is a nice change from the excessiveness of a Lemony Snicket (who says Coraline “scared him to death”) or the overwhelming hype of the Potter phenomena. The narration is entirely through Coraline’s eyes, and children of her age group will be able to relate to her feelings, her interests and her On the other hand, if you are looking for a quick, light and enjoyable adult read, which will absorb you for a few hours or so, and leave you chuckling and perhaps even musing over some of the more powerful imagery (maybe it is the memory of the old Raggedy Ann dolls – but those button eyes really stay with you), Coraline is not a bad choice.

For more information about Coraline visit: Coraline

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