Sara O’Leary; “Here comes a new children’s classic”;Vancouver Sun; July 27, 2002; p.E23.
I’ve just read a new book for young readers. Twice. What does that tell you? Either that I’m younger than I look or one of those weird crossover children’s books that adults love has just been unleashed on the world. The novel in question is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (HarperCollins, $23.99).
Gaiman is a writer with a huge following. The English-born, U.S.-based fantasist, screen- and comicbook-writer is the author of the bestselling novel American Gods and the illustrated serial The Sandman. Now, I have to admit that I have never been among his huge following, but the premise of this novel intrigued me. A little girl passes through a secret door in her house and finds a set of parents who are just like her parents but have buttons for eyes.
Coraline (Gaiman says the name arose from a typing error, and then stuck) and her parents move into a flat in a house that has been subdivided. Downstairs live two old women, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, who claim they were famous actresses in their time. They often argue about whether they might have retired too soon.
In the flat above Coraline’s lives a crazy old man named Mr. Bobo, who is busily training mice for a mouse circus. And on the same floor as Coraline’s flat is an empty flat.
Coraline’s parents both work at home, typing away on computers in their separate offices. When she goes to them and complains of being bored, they helpfully suggest that she pester somebody else.
Coraline’s mother can only cook things like frozen fish fingers, while her father can’t cook a chicken without turning it into a recipe involving things like pastry, wine and prunes.
So when Coraline passes through the bricked-over doorway and into the flat that is like a mirror image of her own, it seems wonderful to find there an “other mother” who has made the most delicious roast chicken Coraline has ever tasted. All the adults from her world are there, although slightly different. Even the cat from the garden is there, but in this world he can talk. When Coraline remarks that they could be friends, he replies (cattily, of course), “We could be rare specimens of an exotic breed of African dancing elephants. But we’re not.”
All of this seems wonderful to Coraline, as does the room filled with toys, the likes of which she has never seen before. But the other mother has those creepy button eyes, and her teeth are just a little too long and her nails a little too sharp and pointy. So, much as she wants Coraline to stay “for ever and always,” and even though she says having buttons sewn over her eyes really won’t hurt, Coraline just wants to go home.
But when she does make it safely back to her own world, her parents have vanished and none of the adults seem prepared to do anything about it. And so, of course, it falls to Coraline to rescue her parents. In the course of doing so, she is also called upon to save the souls of two long-dead children and one centuries-old fairy — a large task for a girl of probably six or seven years. But since this is a fairy tale, I think we all know how things work out. Gaiman uses as an epigraph a quotation from G.K. 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.”
I’ve spent so long telling you what Coraline is about that I hardly have space to describe the plans for a movie or the marathon readings Gaiman has been giving, where he actually reads the whole book. This is the sort of thing that people who attend readings generally fear, but in this case it sounds like it could be a treat. You can read excerpts or let Gaiman read the book to you at www.mousecircus.com.
It doesn’t take long, when discussing novels about young girls accidentally passing into strange new worlds, for three words to come up: “Alice in Wonderland.” This is not Alice in Wonderland, nor is it a new, darker Alice in Wonderland. But it is very good.
I’ve been trying to work out what it is that makes a book ostensibly written for children (Gaiman started this book for his elder daughter, who is now 17, and finished it for his second daughter, who is six) appealing to adults.
It seems to me that a lot of the books written for young adults talk down to them. They also quite often seem to be peculiarly humourless.
Gaiman falls into neither of these traps. Instead, this is a story you can almost imagine him telling for the sheer joy of it. The appeal of this book — to readers, whatever their age — seems to be that it is, in Chesterton’s words, “more than true.”