Little Coraline is terribly bored, but that won't stop her from stumbling into adventure--even in the haunts of her very own flat. Neil Gaiman has constructed a wonderful modern-day fairy tale. Who cannot relate to being bored on a rainy day as a child, and wandering around looking for something to do?
As this author likes to do, he paints an intriguing tale using both the strange and the familiar. Perhaps inspired by his own childhood reading the Narnia Chronicles and Alice in Wonderland, Coraline enters a strange world through a doorway to nowhere inside her home. The protagonist lives in an old mansion that was divided up into four flats. As part of the division, a doorway was bricked up but otherwise left intact. Two of the other flats are inhabited by curious adults who have interesting backgrounds and peculiar interests. But no other children. The fourth flat is vacant and this leaves Coraline wondering what it's like over in the vacant flat.
One day, she opens the odd door (that is usually full of bricks) and discovers a passageway to the "Other" world. Here she discovers her "Other" family who purport to be having a much more interesting and exciting life on this side of the flat. Coraline also meets her "other" neighbors who are even more intriguing and crazier versions of themselves than in the real world. However, there is also a hint that something is a little off, despite the seemingly gracious attitude of the inhabitants of the Other world. For one, they have buttons for eyes! Coraline is a clever girl and keeps her guard up refusing an invitation to stay in this Other world, but she's ultimately drawn back when her loved ones are kidnapped and imprisoned there. This story has all the "wonder" of Wonderland. Nothing is as it seems and all is fascinating in its absurdity.
Gaiman invents his own monsters and puts his own spin on this Other world adventure story that is reminiscent of stepping through the looking glass or through the furs in the oversized wardrobe. The tone of the story is what delivers its charm. It's dark and somber. Yet, despite the darkness, the author manages to keep it light enough for its intended younger audience. Like other masters of the genre, he manages to ride that line where the book is enjoyable for both adults as well as children. Gaiman keeps an element of danger and scary things in the Other world without becoming overly graphic. It's just the right touch. Quite a feat. Not too mention, refreshing.
The setting is very small. It takes place almost entirely in Coraline's home (and the "Other" version of it). This is very relatable. Gaiman really manages to capture the child's perspective of Coraline roaming around her home and the grounds outside. Everything feels big and adventurous. It makes me think about being a youngster myself and exploring different rooms in my grandparents' homes during family parties. How big a house can seem when you're so young...there always seemed to be a mysterious room or door that I might not have noticed before.
Even little touches like Coraline's dislike of her father's cooking feels authentic and in character. Coraline has a real voice in her thoughts, actions and words. Her parents too. They're busy, as parents often are, but they still manage to make time for her and convey a sense of love and doting.
Gaiman has a way of using his words sparingly but he still conveys a sense of place. He seems to find just the right touchstones to get his point across. This makes the story easier for younger readers, but also meaningful and solid for older readers. When you read authors like this, you know within the first page the lighthearted depth that is being conveyed. You're immediately swept up by the words and transported into a new world. It's a great feeling.
By touching on some classic tropes i.e. portals to strange worlds hidden from our own world, sassy talking cats, and smooth talking sirens (who are just a little too nice) - we are easily coaxed off the pages and transported beyond. However, Gaiman has his own perspective on this, and his unique twists and particular details take the old familiar and make it new again.
This feels like a short novella. A fast read. It quickly strikes a mood and sets the stage for a dark, adventurous fairy tale. Definitely recommended.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: "No Deodorant In Outer Space". The podcast is available on iTunes or our website.