Would an adult trust a woman with button eyes? Probably not, so Neil Gaiman has her meet a child. An adult probably wouldn't crawl in a small hole and stay in the alternate world there either, but Coraline does. The button-eyed woman resembles her mother, but where Coraline's mother loves her, her Other Mother is warped and wants Coraline to stay with her behind the wall....but first she has to sew buttons in place of Coraline's eyes.
Gaiman's genius is his ability to make old ideas new. In Coraline he uses the shadowy Gaelic idea of the beldam (an old hag who torments children) to craft a horror story and a moral parable. It's a traditional horror story, trading gore and occultism for dark fantasy and genuine terror. No explanation is offered for the presence of the Other Mother or her bizarre world, and it's better that way—it's mysterious and creepy.
Coraline leads a typical existence in a flat with her parents. Two old women downstairs (Miss Spink and Miss Forcible) and Mr. Bobo upstairs are exquisitely strange, but Mr. and Mrs. Jones are normal, caring people who love their daughter. Unfortunately, they're boring; even more unfortunately, the Other Mother and her menagerie of weirdness are decidedly not boring. They're also not safe, an important fact Coraline routinely ignores.
First Coraline, then her parents are trapped in the Other Mother's dark realm, and only Coraline's wits and a magic stone can save any of them. This is a really scary book for adults and children alike (though children typically are more attuned to the odd than adults). Yet the scariness is purposeful. The absence of structure is terrifying, and Coraline's lesson lies not in the fear itself but in the appreciation she gains for her often less-than-exciting life.
It's important that Gaiman doesn't fall back on the typical "your life really is exciting all the time, you just have to know what to look for" argument. Coraline is legitimately bored a lot of the time, but what she comes to accept isn't so much the boredom as the order and parental nurture it represents. And if it's all in her head, the lesson is that an untamed imagination is no better than a completely absent one. If it's not a classic already, Coraline soon will be.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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