Currently Reading: Coraline

CoralineA woman stood in the kitchen with her back to Coraline. She looked a little like Coraline's mother. Only...

 Only her skin was white as paper.

Only she was taller and thinner.

Only her fingers were too long, and they never stopped moving, and her dark red fingernails were curved and sharp.

"Coraline?" the woman said. "Is that you?"

And then she turned around. Her eyes were big black buttons.

Author: Neil Gaiman

Synopsis: Ignored by the adults in her life, Coraline goes exploring a lot—till one forbidden journey through a small locked door leads her into a monster's trap. Coraline's only hope to free herself and her parents is to challenge her enemy to an all-or-nothing game of chance, and then do whatever it takes to win.

Notes: First things first: Neil Gaiman writes some of the best contemporary prose in all of children's and young adult fiction. His writing is flawless, imaginative, and unique. With solid visual descriptions, the phrasing of a classic, and an intricate, well-rounded plot, Coraline is proof that children's books can be great.

Second things second: I don't particularly enjoy horror, not even in its relatively safe kid lit incarnations. I've read Dracula and a couple of Lovecraft pieces, and Coraline works on a similar level. It's a level I respect, but don't often take much of a liking to unless the darkness is strongly balanced by humor, warmth and light. For instance, Harry Potter and Meggie Folchart face monsters, but they do so with the support of laughing, loving people like the Weasleys and Elinor and Mo. Coraline fights almost entirely alone, and her loneliness troubled me. That was part of the point, of course, but it is not a pleasant point.

But I have to approve the epigraph, from Chesterton: "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Colder, darker fairy tales may never be the ones I care most to learn or teach by, but I couldn't agree more.

Being the sort of person who greatly prefers warm, character-driven fiction, I struggled to relate to any of the characters. At various times I wanted to smack both of Coraline's parents and once or twice even Coraline herself, not to mention everyone else in the book. But again, that's a very personal response.

For the parents who read it, of course, certain aspects of the story may be a gentle and eloquent exhortation to attend more to their own children. I don't have children, but if I did, I'd be tempted to copy a passage or two from the book and paste it along my laptop keyboard. And for modern children, who seem to be often alone, perhaps the tale of Coraline and the cat and the beldam is applicable in very real ways.

Coraline is a quality work, beyond any doubt. For those who take pleasure in a ghostly story, it may be a true delight.

Recommendation: For heaven's sake, don't read it before bed. Pick it up on a nice warm sunny day.


  1. I've got Coraline sitting on my Kindle but it will probably be a long time before I read it. I have to admit I haven't been terribly impressed with Gaiman & his writing & characterization.

  2. Much as I enjoy his prose, George, in some ways I'm really with you. I like his blog better than any of the stories of his that I've read. :)

  3. I have to come at this from a different angle--I think Neil Gaiman is one of the truly great writers alive today. His work is impeccable, haunting, and beautiful, and his prose has an understated elegance that has more in common with the poise of Hemingway and White than the excesses of Nabakov. Coraline may be the most significant work of children's literature since Where the Wild Things Are and A Wizard of Earthsea. But that's my take. :)

    Having read the book, you must now watch this.

    'Why would anybody be afraid...of buttons?'

  4. 'Coraline fights almost entirely alone, and her loneliness troubled me.'

    Not strictly correct, I think. (I just reread this book, btw.) There's the cat and the three other children. And there's only one antagonist to fight, albeit a powerful one. Capricorn and Voldemort have goons and thugs, so they need multiple people to fight them. The nature of their threat is tangibly different as well--it involves many people, not just an individual. So there's a qualitative difference in the type of story, I think.

    And too many wisecracking sidekicks would ruin the effect and the poignancy of Gaiman's tale. (He can do wisecracking ensemble fights, though--for which, see Neverwhere.)

  5. Ha, Mr. Pond. Well, apparently I've always pronounced Mr. Gaiman's name wrong.

    I know a lot of people love this book, you and Travis included, on account of which I would never intentionally suggest that the story is weak or bad. As I pointed out in my review, I do think Neil Gaiman is one of the best writers. And yes, I'll grant you that Coraline is qualitatively different from HP or Inkheart as a story.

    What I tried to express, and perhaps did not succeed as well as I wished, is that despite its many strengths, the book left me--me, personally, just one reader--with a strange cold feeling. I'm not entirely sure why, and that was the closest I've managed to come to explaining it. I'm not a horror fan in general, and no matter how otherwise perfect, stories that are simply dark will always be harder for me to love.

    No matter how brilliant the writer, there will always be readers for whom a book doesn't work. Consider it a testament to Gaiman's genius that despite being zero for two where his books are concerned, I'm still interested in reading more of them.

    But there's no way in heck I'm watching the Coraline movie. :P

  6. Granted, I've only read two of Gaiman's books, Neverwhere & The Graveyard Book. I didn't dislike Neverwhere, but it still really wasn't my thing. I liked The Graveyard Book very much, but I haven't been inspired to read much more of Gaiman's work because there's just something about his writing that doesn't really jive with me. And this may sound like an insult, but he seems way too post-modern for my tastes.

  7. George, I hope it isn't an insult, because I suspect philosophical differences as the root of the unsettled feeling I have after reading a Gaiman work.

    But I will probably still read The Graveyard Book, and I'm tempted to go for Stardust as well.

  8. "...the book left me...with a cold feeling."

    To which I can only say--yup. You just read Coraline! :P

    Gaiman does weird extremely well, and, I would argue, makes it 'redemptive' (in a non-theological sense) in a way that, say, Lovecraft never does. In that sense, I'm almost tempted to call him a sort of Miyazaki-noir. There's a similarity between the two artists, I think, but I won't try teasing that out here.

    And Gaiman is certainly postmodern, in a loose philosophical sense. As, I suppose, he should be. I'm almost tempted to call him post-postmodern, in fact, because he engages in 'deconstruction' but then deconstructs deconstruction while he's deconstructing. He forces us to ask questions, and points us in directions rather than giving us answers. He's an incredibly nuanced and understated writer.

    Full confession time: I want to be Neil Gaiman when I grow up. :)

  9. I'm not opposed to asking questions & being pointed in different directions as long as there are answers to the questions & destinations at the end of the directions. However, I've found post-modernism remarkably unable to give answers or to let you know you're actually going to reach a destination, except in the most relativistic of ways.

    And deconstruction even of deconstruction is still deconstruction. What we need is subversion of post-modernism & deconstruction. I'm not sure Gaiman's gone there yet. But hey, different strokes for different folks. :)

  10. Mr. Pond, funny--I was thinking just earlier about the chilly and unsettled feeling being part of the intended effect of Coraline. I do think it's part of the success of the book. Which is why I'm not much of a horror genre fan, but again, I respect it.

    Since you confess to wanting to be Neil Gaiman, as a reader of your work I'll say that I can see the influence. You already write lovely prose, and you have a strong grasp on the ending-that-is-not-an-ending.

    George, I keep thinking about your comment. I appreciate questioning, and do a heck of a lot of it myself, but deconstruction exhausts me. Speaking as a writer, I just want to build something that people can stand under without getting rained on.


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