September 23, 2012

Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Published: 2002, HarperCollins
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Source: Library book
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I don't want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted just like that, and it didn't mean anything? What then?

So far Neil Gaiman's books and I have clashed. I was not a fan of Good Omens at all, and I didn't enjoy Neverwhere either. And we read and discussed one of his Sandman graphic novels in class, but, honestly, a graphic novel is just not going to be my favorite; it's not my type of thing. But it's hard to give him up completely. After all, he's such a well-known and respected darker fantasy author. After so many disappointments, however, it's hard to create my own initiative here. So when this Young Adult book group I just joined told me we were going to read Coraline for this month, I was ready to try him once more.

Coraline Jones and her parents have moved into a new flat, their floor sandwiched between one shared by two retired actresses and another inhabited by a crazy old man who conducts a mouse band. An only child, Coraline spends the majority of her remaining summer vacation exploring her building, getting to know her neighbors, and wandering around the apartment's unkempt grounds. Coraline's parents both work from home and are too distracted by other responsibilities to find much time for their lonely daughter. Alone and confined indoors due to the weather one day, Coraline feels drawn to the mysterious door in her drawing room that opens upon a brick wall. Except that this time when she opens it she finds a dark hallway before her. At the end is a flat that appears much like her own, but with subtle differences. There she is introduced to her other parents, who give her all the attention and adoration her real parents do not. Coraline senses something off about this world, however, and returns home. But when all evidence points to her true parents being kidnapped by her other parents, Coraline must venture back into this alternate world to put her real life back in order.

From the beginning, Coraline's name signifies that something is a little off with this story. She's not a Caroline, but the slightly altered form of Coraline. At a first glance the alternate world beyond the drawing room's door seems just as subtly different. It holds much that is familiar to Coraline but even better, featuring her favorite foods, exciting new toys, and attentive parents. But this world, as Coraline eventually discovers, is more than just a little off. The other mother, for example, at first seems pretty similar to Coraline's true mother, but over the course of the novel Coraline discovers newer ways that this creature is unlike her mother, from the black button eyes, to bone white skin, to crimson claws (nails), to black sinous hair. I have to admit, the differences between this world and Coraline's real one became more and more terrifying as time goes on. Although this is a story where a child discovers a new world, in the vein of Alice in Wonderland or The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, this is one fantasy world I personally would be content to never discover.

Coraline is a wildly imaginative story. I want to meet Neil Gaiman and figure out where he comes up with these concepts, especially those more grotesque ones. I still cannot get over being creeped out by the black button eyes and how the other mother wants Coraline to replace her own eyes with them. I'm not much of a fearless risk-taker myself, but that makes me more appreciative of how, in the midst of many trials, Coraline is able to find a sense of self-confidence and emerge all the stronger. Honestly, I never would have been able to do what she does to regain her family. But I do love a story where a protagonist goes against the odds to restore rightness in the world. 

My favorite aspect of the book is how Coraline is able to explore the depths and limits of love, figuring out what it means to her. Do the disconnected, almost apathetic reactions that Coraline feels she receives from her parents constitute as love? Do the other mother's proclamations and temptations count? Over the course of the novel Coraline has to figure out answers to these questions and discover what love means to her. As Coraline's journey reveals, this is not an easy answer. But then, love never is truly easy to understand.

I have a feeling that this kind of story would have fit my younger self much better than how his adult stories currently (don't) suit me. My biggest problem here is that I'm not a dark fantasy fan; if I was one, I would have enjoyed this story. And Gaiman's quirky writing style is just not something I can easily adjust to. While this story is again a miss for me, Coraline features a plucky and resourceful young heroine easy to admire. From Coraline I can start to get a better understanding of why Neil Gaiman has such a large fan base, even if I am still not part of it. 

Will this be my last Neil Gaiman story? I'm not sure. While I respect his writing, I'm just not sure it's anything I'd really come to enjoy.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. Oooh, you know, I never made the observation about Coraline being a little off from just her name--that's fantastic and so on the nose. I'm glad that you enjoyed this one, even if Neil Gaiman isn't your usual style. I will say that the ones that you'd read before this were probably the poorest indications of what you'd 'usually' find with him. Neverwhere was his first, and it wasn't written originally to be a novel, Good Omens has such heavy Terry Pratchett overtones, and Sandman, as you said is a graphic novel which might not be your thing. I hope you're willing to try something else!

    1. haha thank you, Heidi! I guess that makes me feel better, knowing the Gaiman books I've read haven't been some of his best. I am not completely against trying another one of his books, but I'd need some strong recommendations. :)

  2. Great review! Coraline and The Graveyard Book are my favorites of his. Along with Sandman but I just love pictures. haha the movie is awesome too, but if the creepy factor isn't your thing, maybe don't watch it. The music is so haunting. Yeah, I guess I won't recommend dark fantasy to you anymore. lol

    1. I'll probably see the movie anyway. I'm curious now. But I do believe there is dark fantasy out there that I'd enjoy! I just haven't found it yet.


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