BOOKS: John Reviews “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman

Coraline by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKean

Coraline by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKean

Since the motion picture adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning children’s book Coraline (with illustrations by Dave McKean) is taking critics and moviegoers across the country by storm, I decided to take a look at the source material before visiting the multiplex and donning a pair of 3-D glasses.  While I’m sure a few people on my afternoon bus thought it was a bit odd for a man in his twenties to be reading a children’s book, their judgments did not dissuade me in the slightest.  I found Coraline to be a fantastic piece of modern children’s fantasy similar to the works of Roald Dahl, told with a unique flair for both style and heart that Neil Gaiman is known for. 

Coraline is a story of a plucky,adventurous young girl named Coraline (whose name is constantly mispronounced “Caroline” by everyone but her parents)  with inattentive parents,  an active imagination and a love of exploring.  While exploring her family’s new house, she discovers a door to a world much like her own, but with several interesting differences.  A woman who looks mostly like her mother (but with black button eyes and long fingers) claims to be her “other mother”, and that she wants Coraline to live with her in the other world forever.  This other world is not as charming as it first appears, and Coraline must use all her wits and cunning to rescue her parents (and herself!) from the clutches of the other mother before the door to the real world closes forever. 

 There are a lot of things to like about Coraline, from its humble charm to its innocent sense of fantasy to its accessibility to burgeoning young readers.  Perhaps its most endearing trait, though, is how rewarding it is to read aloud.  Gaiman’s carefully measured pace and simple, yet descriptive choice of words seem designed to be read as a bedtime story.  I actually found myself intentionally slowing down as I read, in order to imagine a narrator with a warm, friendly voice and a British accent – like Liam Neeson or Stephen Fry – speaking the words aloud.  If ever there was a book I would recommend buying the audiobook version of, it would be Coraline (especially since the audiobook is lovingly read by Gaiman himself.)  I fully intend to keep a copy of this book until the day when I have a child to read to, and I’m sure I’ll get more out of it than s/he will. 

One of the interesting components of Coraline is its structure, specifically in the way that nearly every element from her mundane life is reflected in some manner in the other world.  This is done in more than just a Wizard of Oz “and you were there! and you!” sort of way, though, and has more in common with Shaun of the Dead‘s use of subtle repetition. Everything from the analogues of the characters to the significance of certain colors (like lime green) to overarching themes about the importance of love versus attention and excitement all factor in to the parallels between Coraline’s world and the other.  The ending is not entirely ambiguous, but it does make everything seem nearly as likely to be a flight of Coraline’s fancy as a recounting of actual events.  It makes subsequent readings interesting as well, since a reader may not notice every parallel detail during the first reading.

I suspect that Coraline is a book that feminists may enjoy as well, in large part because of how strong and independent Coraline proves herself to be.  She never needs to rely on anyone’s direct interference for help, and there is no token male character for her to be infatuated with.  Even her father has a minimal presence, both in the real world and in the other.  It’s pretty much Coraline’s show from start to finish, and she proves to be even more independent and self-reliant than most children her age.  When her parents are abucted, she carries on her normal life for two days and keeps the house’s daily affairs in order before going on her own to rescue them.  She is not without fear and doubt, however, and it is her courage and conviction that help her to overcome those fears and be the heroine she needs to be.

While I can’t say how well the story will translate to screen until I see it for myself, I believe that Coraline is proof that there is still a place in this web2.0 world for bedtime stories, and a fantastic charm that is entirely their own.  Gaiman wisely prefaces the book with a quote by G.K. Chesterton that sums up its charm perfectly: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

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One Response

  1. […] already read and reviewed both the book and movie of Coraline, I figured I would complete the set and tackle the graphic novel adaptation […]

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