Of Explorers and Button Eyes: Neil Gaiman's Coraline
Reviewed by Tim Pratt
1 July 2002
The canon of my childhood favorites was set, not surprisingly, in my childhood, and includes Lewis Carroll's Alice books, Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy, and too many others to list. And yet, recently, a new book made its way onto that list, and managed to inspire the same sense of adventure and wonder; to transport me, in all the good ways, back to childhood. That book is Coraline (which rhymes with "horror-wine," if you have Gaiman's British accent), the new YA by that increasingly impressive author-of-all-trades, Neil Gaiman. The phrase "instant classic" is an annoying oxymoron, but I'm tempted to use it for Gaiman's book anyway -- I think it's one that children and grown-ups will be reading for a long time. The US edition features fabulous illustrations by Dave McKean; I had no idea the master of photo-collage could draw so well. When I have children of my own, I'll be waiting impatiently for them to be old enough to enjoy hearing me read Coraline to them aloud.
But before I get to the book in more detail, I'd like to say something about the author, and why Coraline is his crowning accomplishment. Neil Gaiman is the consummate storyteller currently working in the various fields of speculative fiction. In a world where niche marketing is increasingly prevalent, where authors sometimes have to resort to pseudonyms in order to even publish work in a different sub-genre from the one their fans are accustomed to, Gaiman defies categorization, and uses whatever approach seems appropriate for the story he wants to tell. During the course of his career, he has tried his hand at a variety of storytelling media -- the comics that started his career (most notably Sandman, but also The Books of Magic and Violent Cases); illustrated narratives like Stardust and The Dream Hunters; powerful short stories like "Chivalry," "Troll Bridge," "Harlequin Valentine," and "Keepsakes & Treasures: A Love Story"; poetry like "The White Road," "Eaten: Scenes from a Moving Picture," and "Vampire Sestina"; the BBC mini-series Neverwhere and the novelization of the same name; his first true novel, the Hugo-nominated American Gods (which won a Stoker award, beating out odds-on favorite Black House by Stephen King & Peter Straub); and now a children's book, Coraline. Opinions differ regarding the relative quality of these works, of course, but I find all of them worthy of attention. In the breadth of his efforts and the depth of his accomplishment, Gaiman is slowly proving himself to be the storytelling virtuoso of our age, and Coraline may be his single most successful work to date.
Coraline is immensely important to Neil Gaiman. In his online journal, Gaiman talks about how much Coraline means to him, making it clear that the work is very close to his heart.
It's not difficult to see why. Sandman is the work that cemented Gaiman's fame, but its effect is a cumulative one -- over the course of several years, Gaiman created an intricate, vast story composed of smaller stories. Coraline's effect is far more compressed -- the book can easily be read from beginning to end in a sitting -- and all the more powerful for that. It's being marketed as a children's book, yes, but it's full of pleasures for adults, too.
So what's it about? Like most great children's books, it's about a smart, perceptive, quirky child dealing with deeply serious problems. The child in question is Coraline, who as the story begins has just moved into a new apartment with her mother and father. It's obvious that her parents love her, but they're too busy to give her the attention she would like. Her mother does her best to keep Coraline busy by setting her small tasks -- like counting all the blue things in the flat -- but Coraline is happiest when exploring on her own. (If her character could be summed up in a single word, it would be "explorer" -- in the brave-and-intrepid sense, not the eaten-by-cannibals imperialist one.) In the course of her explorations, she finds a mysterious locked door in the drawing room. Her mother has the key, and shows Coraline what's behind the door -- nothing but bricks. The door is an artifact from when the apartment house was a single dwelling, before it was split into flats, and there's an uninhabited apartment beyond the bricks.
Coraline explores the grounds and meets the other tenants. There's a "crazy old man" upstairs who tells Coraline that he's training his circus mice to play music, and Coraline finds him vaguely alarming, if only because she can't tell whether he's serious or joking. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, two aging former actresses, live downstairs with a coterie of Scottie dogs. The ladies are happy to dispense tea, inedible cookies, and advice, and they read Coraline's tea leaves, which indicate that she's in danger. Coraline is the type to find the prospect of danger more interesting than alarming. They give her a stone with a hole in the middle for protection.
Inevitably, Coraline takes the key and returns to the door, and this time when she opens it, there are no bricks, just a dark corridor. Coraline takes this in stride (perhaps because she's recently watched a television program about protective coloration, and understands that things can pretend to be other things). She passes through the door -- what explorer wouldn't? -- and emerges in a flat that is the mirror image of her own.
There she meets one of the most disturbing creatures I've ever encountered in fiction, a thing that looks much like her mother, except for the too-white hands and the black buttons she has instead of eyes. She tells Coraline that she's her "other mother," and that Coraline may stay with her forever; the chief advantages of this arrangement seem to be delicious food (Coraline's own parents seldom cook anything to her liking) and a lack of disciplinary constraints. Coraline also meets her "other father," who has buttons for eyes as well. The other mother leads Coraline into the kitchen, telling her there's just one thing she has to do before they can be a family. She shows Coraline a needle and thread and two buttons, which she wants to sew over Coraline's eyes.
Coraline sensibly refuses this disturbingly surreal request and escapes out the front door, into a garden much like her own. There she meets a black cat, which can travel freely from the real world to this one -- but here, in the other mother's world, it can talk. The cat is a marvelous character, as inscrutable and infuriating as Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat, and even more arch. "We -- we could be friends, you know," Coraline says to the cat, which replies, "We could be rare specimens of an exotic breed of African dancing elephants." Nevertheless, the cat stays with her, and even provides help, later on.
Coraline explores further, and finds strange analogues to her own world -- a theater full of dogs downstairs, where younger versions of Miss Forcible and Miss Spinks perform an endless vaudeville-style variety show, and a distinctly lunatic old man upstairs, who has dozens of red-eyed rats living in his suit. This world doesn't extend much beyond the garden gates, however, and seems altogether an unfinished place.
Unnerved, Coraline returns through the corridor, home -- and discovers that her parents are gone. She tries not to worry, making dinner for herself -- Coraline is a whiz with the microwave -- but her parents don't come back, and later, Coraline sees them trapped behind a mirror, obviously imprisoned by the other mother. Being a sensible child, Coraline calls the police, and explains the whole situation to them. They react as one would expect, suggesting that Coraline have some hot chocolate and get a hug.
At this point, the problem is clear; Coraline will have to go through the door and get her parents back, though the prospect of facing the other mother again terrifies her. (At this point, she tells the cat a story about something her father did once, and in so doing offers the most concise and moving explanation of what it means to be brave that I've ever read.)
Getting back her parents is not an easy task. The other mother proves ever more monstrous, from the visceral (eating black beetles) to the temperamental (she calls the cat "vermin") to the personal (she tells Coraline that her real parents don't love her anymore). Things take a turn for the even-worse when Coraline meets the ghosts of children the other mother has "loved" in the past, and realizes what her own fate will be if she doesn't defeat the creature.
Armed only with her own resourcefulness, the stone with a hole in the center, and the cat's unpredictable assistance, Coraline has to outwit and defeat the other mother, and in so doing rescue not only her parents and herself but the poor trapped ghosts -- and protect herself and the rest of the world from the other mother's grasp forever after.
The story is full of twists and nightmare images, dark surprises and moments of stunning beauty, and through it all there is never a misstep, nor a moment when it seems that Gaiman is unsure of what he's doing or what happens next, despite the fact that it took him ten years to write the book, and that he did so piecemeal, averaging about 2,000 words a year. It is a masterly achievement, a delight for children and adults alike -- and I strongly encourage reading it aloud to someone you love, young or old or in between. You'll both be the better for it.
(For fun beyond the text, the Coraline Web site is quite entertaining, though it's Flash-intensive, so patience may be required; once it gets started, it's a very rewarding pointing-and-clicking experience.)
Tim Pratt is a poet, fiction writer, and reviewer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He works as an editorial assistant for Locus, and also edits Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, and other nice places. Tim's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. Visit his Web site for much more.