Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 5

Desperate to make progress in the reading challenge hosted by Cathy746books, I grabbed a short one. Coraline, by Neil Gaiman, clocks in at 162 pages and a 90 minute reading time. Even if you’ve seen the movie, there are enough differences that the book is superior. Book-Coraline doesn’t rely on an irritating sidekick; she’s cleverer and self-reliant. There’s a cast of helpers behind her, but Coraline must sort out their cryptic help alone. The film, by making Coraline a supporting character in her own story, overlooks the fun and adventure of the original.

From the back cover:
When Coraline steps through a door to find another house strangely similar to her own (only better), but full of fantastic turns and things seem marvelous. But there’s another mother there, and another father, and they want her to stay and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go. Coraline will have to fight with all her wits and courage if she is to save herself and return to her ordinary life.

I’m going to keep this review vague. The story is simple (predictable, in some ways), but contains precise turns and beautiful details. The less you know going in, the more enjoyable it is to read. Coraline’s life with her real parents isn’t unhappy, but it’s filled with the annoyances that populate the kid-leaves-home-to-appreciate-home genre: busy, inattentive parents; new house/neighborhood; having to finish dinner. This section is so pat that the reader is happy to meet the other mother quickly. Of course, she’s contrasted with Coraline’s actual family:

“Yes,” said the other mother. “It wasn’t the same here without you. But we knew you’d arrive one day, and then we could be a proper family. Would you like some more chicken?”
It was the best chicken that Coraline had ever eaten. Her mother sometimes made chicken, but it was always out of packets or frozen, and was very dry, and it never tasted of anything. When Coraline’s father cooked chicken he bought real chicken, but he did strange things to it, like stewing it in wine, or stuffing it with prunes, or baking it in pastry, and Coraline would always refuse to touch it on principal. (29)

It’s the initial normalcy of this other world that’s intriguing. The other mother’s house is parallel to Coraline’s own and familiar, but new enough to offer places to explore and something to do. The other world breaks up her summer tedium and feels fresh and welcome, even as she greets it with suspicion. The best scenes are her interactions with the other mother. These exchanges allow endless avenues for the story because the other mother is so… well, other. It’s tricky to get a read on the extent of her capabilities or MO. She’s everywhere in the tiny world that she created to ensnare Coraline and the setting illuminates her ability (or inability) to understand Coraline and offers hints to her character.

The detail that everyone grabs onto in this book is the button eyes of Coraline’s other family. It’s a great detail and shown to great effect in the film. I was lucky enough to hear Gaiman speak about this book a few years ago and someone asked about the button eyes. Gaiman described them as a spur of the moment, tiny decision that grew to a large thing within his fan base. You never know the detail that a readership will respond to. That’s part of the fun of writing. Here’s a great clip of Gaiman talking about the fear of buttons:

Don’t you want to read his book now?

Overall: 4.3 It’s a light, fun book that feels like it’s missing…something. The details are original, but the baseline story is something that has been done many, many times. Gaiman does it better than most (if not all), but it’s not the most satisfying thing he’s written.

Translation: Read it. What, you don’t have 90 minutes? Read it before bed; that’s the best time for it.

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