Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my LOCUS Y-A list.
I think I’ll always have a soft-spot for imaginative young-adult speculative fiction and as the good people at Locus did such a grand job with picking their Sci-Fi winners, I’ll trust them to single out some special y-a books too.
When I pulled up the list of previous Locus Y-A Award winners, I wasn’t surprised to see Coraline taking the 2003 prize. It’s one of those books that I had been meaning to get around to reading since it came out but never quite got to before the film came out in 2009. I probably would have picked it up sooner, if it wasn’t for the huge success of the film - I know that may sound counter-intuitive, but with the movie still fresh in my mind, I didn’t want to go into the book with my imagination pre-programmed.
Having left it a few years, it was now possible to read the book on its own terms, without hearing Dakota Fanning’s voice coming out of Coraline’s mouth or picturing the world through Selick’s stop-motion interpretation. And, golly-gee, it was worth the wait!
I think what grabbed me first was the scarcity of the descriptions. Gaiman does a marvellous job of conveying much while saying little. It would have been easy to tunnel down into many of these moments to build depth, tension and atmosphere, etc – in fact, that’s normally one thing I love a good writer doing – but Coraline is the work of a master storyteller. Reading it is like catching in the distance the melody of a complex pop song played on pan-pipes – it’s been stripped down to the bare essentials, but remains just as likely to get stuck in your head and your own mind does all the extra imaginative work, fleshing out the skeleton.
Having said all that, the little details that Gaiman does embellish his tale with are vivid and evocative, imbuing his titular character and her world their own clear and quirky style. Much like a few eye catching pieces of jewellery (or some dayglo green gloves and wellington boots that look like frogs) can really set-off an outfit.
Coraline herself is a wonderful heroine and I’ve come to the conclusion that her attitude is perfect for this story. She is so very matter-of-fact and quietly determined, in complete contrast to the dark whimsy of the other-world. In my review of The Graveyard Book (which is a cut from similar cloth) my only complaint was that the hero of that story, a young boy called Nobody Jones, was a too much an ‘everyman’ character, easily identified with but lacking a bit of sparkle himself. I was tempted to make the same complaint in Coraline – surely a girl with a bit of sass would have captured my heart more? I’m a sucker for a sassy girl. But on reflection, I’ve decided that Coraline is just right the way she is. If she’d had more fun with her adventure – treated it like playtime, like a complicated game – it would have lost a lot of its weight. But Coraline is serious, stubborn and independent, she’s not fazed by the threat the other-mother poses, but she takes it at face value and deals with it on its own terms. That grounded, sober perspective keeps the story firmly balanced, and curtails any risk of it drifting into the talking-animals and fairytale-baddies children’s fantasy pigeonhole.
While we’re mentioning talking animals though – both the cat and the rats were highlights for me! I have three cats and I’m sure Gaiman must a lot of experience with cats, because he’s got the cat-itude spot-on.
I looked at that last line and thought, this is the era of the internet – all the information of the world is at my fingertips! So I Googled “does Neil Gaiman have a cat?”, found my way to the “cats” tag on his blog and fished out this quote:
Yes, this man knows his cats! And it shows. And I loved every scene involving the-cat -with-no-name. Here are a couple of quotes, because they are smile-worthy.“There used to be seven cats in this house. There were always seven cats. As one died off or went walkabout, never to return, another would turn up at the back door.”
“What's your name,' Coraline asked the cat. 'Look, I'm Coraline. Okay?'
'Cats don't have names,' it said.
'No?' said Coraline.
'No,' said the cat. 'Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names.”
And then there are the rats. I’ve read a few books recently with talking rats. Wind in the Willows, with good old Ratty. Thomas, with its evil (but stupid) minion rats. The Amazing Maurice, with its brave, magic Discworld rats (go, go, Dangerous Beans!). All three of these present their rats as small, furry people - but Coraline does not. The rats are something like an elemental evil. Like the spirit of treachery embodied. Or the essence of malignancy made flesh. They’re genuinely creepy!“The cat wrinkled its nose and managed to look unimpressed. "Calling cats," it confided, "tends to be a rather overrated activity. Might as well call a whirlwind.”
Which brings us nicely on to the buttons: will I ever look at buttons the same way? I think not. There is a beads and buttons shop in the Cardiff arcades, and every time I walk past I see the ghosts of a thousand other-mothers in their window display. Best subversion of a standard household object ever. Come here Coraline, so I can sew buttons into your eyes and you can stay and love me forever! Yuk, yuk, yuk! Creepy as cockroaches under your skin. Pure ick.
Keely makes a good point about Gaiman’s body of work as existing as a modern reimagining of classic myth types.
I (obviously) disagree with Keely’s conclusion - that Coraline, standing outside of an obvious storytelling tradition is worse off for lacking the genre savvy play of his other work.“He took inspiration from Fairy Tales in Stardust, from European myth in American Gods, and African myth in Anansi Boys. Though Morpheus was no small man, the individual story arcs dealt with normal folks. Sandman and Good Omens worked off of Christian mythos, while Neverwhere created myths from modern symbols”
I’ve been thinking about how I’d classify the inspiration behind Coraline, and the phrase that’s come to mind is “domestic horror”. When you’re little, your parents warn you about the dangers of life. Don’t run with scissors. Don’t play with matches. Don’t take sweets from stranger. Pratchett riffed off the fears these warnings can create in Hogfather (the thumb-suckers thumb-cutting ostrich-scissor-monster?) – and it’s that same riff I feel running through Coraline. Don’t play with the sewing box, you might hurt yourself. Don’t play with rats, they might bite. Don’t wish for another mother or your other-mother will sew buttons into your eyes.
Or perhaps the moral is for the parents? Ignore your child too much and she may just run away to someone more attentive... who may take advantage and hurt her. Try and ignore that thought when you wave your kids away to ‘go play’ because you’re too busy, huh?
It’s a cracking little book. So why only four stars? Because it’s teeny. It’s barely a novella. To get a full five stars I need something I can sink my teeth into. This was delicious, but I was still hungry when I finished.
After this I read: Qualia