Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

In my quest to work my way through the catalogue of the prolific Neil Gaiman, I’ve sampled some of his movies, adult novels, short story collections, YA short story collections and graphic novels (to date, just Black Orchid, review coming to FMS soon). Coraline is the first children’s novel of his that I’ve read: it’s not a picture book, but it’s a little easier to get through than his YA stuff. That being said, Coraline is scary.

Coraline Jones lives with her parents in a flat in part of a big old house. They share the old house with the denizens of the other two flats: the crazy old man in the attic flat, who tells Coraline that he’s training up a mouse circus; and the Misses Spink and Forcible, aging actresses, with their sundry aging terriers. The big old house has a ramshackle garden around it and many rooms to explore in it, which is a good thing since Coraline’s parents, who work at home doing things on computers, all but ignore their daughter, too wrapped up in their work. The neighbors aren’t that much better: they pay attention to Coraline but can’t manage to get her name right. She reminds them (to no avail): “It’s Coraline. Not Caroline. Coraline.”

The Jones family flat has twenty-one windows and fourteen doors – Coraline counts them all one bored day. The fourteenth door is locked, however, and when she finds the old iron key and opens it, she finds a brick wall. Until she tries it again later and finds a passageway into another flat. This other flat is in another house that is very similar to Coraline’s house. There’s even another mother and another father who feed her things that she likes to eat and show her another bedroom with crazy toys. But as much as she initially likes it there, Coraline realizes that there is something wrong with the other mother and the other father, not just that they have black buttons where their eyes should be. The other parents want her to stay and live with them, there’s just something they need to change first …

There’s also the matter of the other children, the ones that were trapped in the house by the other mother so many years ago that they are only ghosts, hiding in mirrors now. Coraline is the only one who can rescue them, if she can figure out how to outwit the other mother with her terrible long fingers and snaky black hair, and the rats who do her bidding.

There is no question that Coraline is a scary story – I was a little scared and I’m thirty-something forty-something old a Stephen King fan. The other mother is scary, the rats are nasty, the thing in the basement that I’m not going to talk further about is totally creepy. But Coraline is a sensible, clever girl and she keeps her wits about her, and that is what children will connect with. I would imagine that Coraline would be a good book for children and parents to read together (although perhaps not right before bedtime), but I can tell you from experience that it’s a treat to read by yourself as an adult as well.

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