Coraline, a novel by Neil Gaiman for boys and girls aged from 8-14 is what my daughter, Tallulah described as a ‘seriously spooky’ book when she reviewed it for this website last year. You can find her review here.
I am currently re-reading this with my youngest child, Oscar, aged seven. So I thought I would give my own views on it here. As you can tell from the last few posts, we are having something of a Neil Gaiman fest in our house as Oscar steadily works his way through Gaiman’s output. He is loving it, and so am I. There are few things I would welcome re-reading more.
Coraline Jones is a young girl whose parents, whilst loving her, do not exactly give her their full attention. Having recently moved into a new flat, and with a week of the school holidays left to go, Coraline is bored. She wishes her parents would entertain her, but every time she asks them to play with her they are too busy doing something else, and they advise her to find her entertainment elsewhere.
The house Coraline lives in is old and rather spooky looking. It is divided into flats, of which Coraline’s is the middle one. Upstairs lives an old man who claims to be training a mouse circus, and who everyone else thinks is mad, because he tells them that the mice speak to him. Downstairs, in the basement, live Miss Forcible and Miss Spink, ex actresses who live in a world of dreams and dog hair, surrounded by Highland Terriers.
Even they, welcoming as they are to Coraline, accept her presence in an absent minded, self absorbed sort of way, getting her name wrong, not listening properly to what she is saying and generally making her feel invisible.
One day, when she is exploring the flat on her father’s instructions, she finds a door in the drawing room. She asks her mother where it leads to. Her mother takes a key from the kitchen, unlocks the door in the drawing room and opens it onto a wall of bricks. It is, she explains, part of the old house before it got divided up. On the other side of the wall is a flat identical to Coraline’s own, but empty, because it is still for sale.
Coraline is very interested in this door. Further investigation proves that there are times when the door actually opens onto a dark corridor.
Coraline goes down this dark corridor into the mirror world of her own. A flat, like hers in nearly every detail, except for the odd unnerving exception. It is also unnerving because it is inhabited by a mirror or ‘other’ family. Coraline’s ‘other’ mother and father. Whilst welcoming, and at the beginning, novel to Coraline, they also make her uneasy – in large part due to the fact that their eyes have been replaced with stitched on, black, shiny buttons.
Once the novelty wears off, Coraline is keen to get back to her own flat and her own world. The mirror parents are not so keen to let go of her however, and the other mother manipulates Coraline’s reality magically, disappearing her parents and forcing Coraline to bravely enter the world of the ‘other’ parents to try and save her real parents from harm.
This book is marvellously eccentric. I love the Misses Spink and Forcible, particularly in the other world, where they perform a perpetual cabaret, watched only by a series of talking dogs who crave chocolate. The man with the mouse circus is eerily wonderful, especially when his mice prove to be prescient in their diagnosis of the grave danger Coraline is in. My favourite character however, is the cat which Coraline meets in both the worlds she inhabits and who is as superior and arrogant as we know all cats are in reality.
The humour of the book both throws the sinister nature of what is going on into sharp relief, and also provides respite from the dark strangeness of what is happening. My son is ambivalent about it, both delighted and scared in turn, but always exhorting me to read on. For the adult reader, there are wonderful nods to the wider world of fairy stories, which remind us of the tradition Gaiman is working from. There are wicked step mothers, indifferent parents, magical animals, the power of naming and the ability to slip between worlds using stones with holes in and mirrors as conduits of magical power. it is splendidly written at every level, and it is this which I find most satisfying on re-reading it.