Saturday, January 5, 2008

Book Review: Coraline

An almost ideal children's book.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman. Harper Perennial (New York): 2002. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-113937-6, ISBN-10: 0-06-113937-8. 163 pages. Illustrated. $12.95.

Neil Gaiman has constructed an excellent fairy tale. The story opens with a young girl who, like Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has grown rather tired of her drab, gray life. No children her age live in the area, and her parents are too busy to pay attention to her. Coraline spends her summer days exploring and visiting the eccentric neighbors.

Coraline and her family live in a large, old house that had been divided up into apartments occupied by lovable weirdos. Gaiman has used the device of a residence or neighborhood full of eccentrics before in The Doll's House. This time-worn but still useful gimmick is the basis of numerous works, including the film Lady in the Water, the manga series Maison Ikkoku, and Naguib Mahfouz's Midaq Alley, one of the most famous novels to come from Egypt. In Coraline's case, two of the strange neighbors are batty old ladies, and fortunately for her, they, like many batty old ladies, know a little magic and can give Coraline a charm that eventually proves quite handy.

A certain door in Coraline's apartment normally opens on a brick wall, but Coraline discovers that when she opens it late at night, it leads through a tunnel to a house much like her own, but with important differences: the food tastes better, the toys are more exciting, Coraline's "other" parents pay attention to her, and as an added surreal touch, everyone has black buttons sewn over his eyes. The other parents in this alternate world want Coraline to stay with them forever, but she escapes--only to find that her real parents have been kidnapped and trapped in a mirror. To get them back, Coraline will have to learn the secrets of the mysterious alternate world behind the door.

Nicely creepy but never gruesome, the book proves to be a fine fantasy work with an admirable heroine. Brave and curious explorer though she is, Coraline has some believably childish eccentricities. Most memorably, she refuses to eat any meal made from a recipe. This is such a believable yet unusual finickiness, I was unsurprised to learn that Gaiman based the trait on his own son, Mike, who refused to eat elaborate dishes when he was young.

The novel works well as an adventure tale or a work of mild, child-appropriate horror, but it also has a plain moral, presented in a scene where one of the characters in the alternate world tries to convince Coraline to stay there forever:

"Nothing's changed, little girl," he said, his voice sounding like the nose dry leaves make as they rustle across a pavement. "And what if you do everything you swore you would? What then? Nothing's changed. You'll go home. You'll be bored. You'll be ignored. No one will listen to you, not really listen to you. You're too clever and too quiet for them to understand. They don't even get your name right

Stay here with us," said the voice from the figure at the end of the room. "We will listen to you and play with you and laugh with you..."

"And will there bey gray, wet days where just don't know what to do and there's nothing to read or to watch and nowhere to go and the day drags on forever?" asked Coraline.

From the shadows, the man said, "Never."

"And will there be awful meals, with food made from recipes, with garlic and tarragon and broad beans in?" asked Coraline.

"Every meal will be a thing of joy," whispered the voice from under the old man's hat....

Coraline sighed. "You really don't understand, do you?" she said. "I don't want everything I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if just got everything I ever wanted?" [pp. 118-120]

This same basic idea is captured in an episode of The Twilight Zone entitled "A Nice Place to Visit" (1960). In this episode, an unambiguously nasty man dies and goes to a place he thinks is Heaven, where he gets everything he ever wanted. Only after he is stiflingly bored does he realize he's not in Heaven after all.

This can remind us, and I think some of us need reminded, that the Christian concept of Heaven is not a place where everyone gets everything he wants (that would be Muslim Heaven), but a place of eternal companionship, the beatific vision: they see God face to face. In Coraline, the heroine is tempted away from good by transitory pleasures that, the reader knows, ultimately lead to total ruin, but she overcomes.

The book contains only one direct Christian reference. After Coraline's other mother punishes her by trapping her temporarily behind a mirror, she says to Coraline, "I came and fetched you out of the cupboard. You needed to be taught a lesson, but we temper our justice with mercy here; we love the sinner and we hate the sin" (p. 90). Gaiman isn't above some occasional snide remarks about Christianity; this may be interpreted as one such remark, or it may be interpreted as an irony, so take your pick.

This edition of the book has some extras in the back, including Gaiman's brief description of why he wrote it. One of his comments, though anecdotal, is interesting because it suggests that children and adults receive stories in very different ways. "It was a story, I learned when people began to read it, that children experienced as an adventure, but which gave adults nightmares" (back matter p. 5). I myself am inclined to believe that finicky adults sometimes pull "disturbing" books from children's shelves that don't really disturb the children at all.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Coraline:

Myth Level: High (have I mentioned I hate this scale? Oh, it's like a fairy tale, I guess, mythical stuff and all that)

Quality: High (nicely written, evenly paced, thrilling and chilling)

Ethics/Religion: High (good moral, likable protagonist, nothing objectionable)
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