Illustrated by Dave McKean
US Hardcover First (8th printing)
Publication Date: 07-02-2002
163 Pages; $15.99
Date Reviewed: 11-05-02
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002
Neil Gaiman's 'Coraline', is a novel for children about a supernatural menace that stalks a young girl and her family. Yet it's the science-fictional heart that beats in evil's chest that makes this book a very dark and creepy delight. The prose is actually simple enough for an eight year old to grasp, but is built on a foundation sophisticated enough to satisfy the most demanding adult. 'Coraline' is surprisingly strong and scarier than many novels crammed with gore and aimed at an adult audience. Gaiman's novel is practically a stone fortress of crafty writing.
Obviously, it took this reviewer a while to get around to buying the book, and longer to get around to reading it. Having finished it, I can hardly wait to read it again. Coraline is the title character, a determined young girl whose family has moved into a new flat. They share the building with Misses Spink and Forcible, the crazy old man upstairs, and Coraline's other mother and father. They're to be found on the far side of a normally locked door, and once Coraline enters their world she finds that she's attracted the attention of something quite devious. She calls upon her courage and fights to save herself and others from a very unpleasant fate.
Gaiman's language is exquisite. Hemmed in by the age of his viewpoint character, he seems to have found the freedom to paint in perfect, simple phrases. He's an expert at showing without having to ever resort to telling. Reading this little book is going to be a great joy for those who have enjoyed his other novels. The reader is given ample opportunity to understand what Coraline reports but does not herself comprehend. It's done very skillfully and is a thrilling to read. It's a wonderful throwback to Arthur Machen's seminal story, 'The White People', in which evil as chaos was observed by a little girl, who reported her experiences in a journal.
Gaiman also knows how to ratchet up the pure terror. He does this by creating a very science fictionally limited opponent, laying out the rules for the reader to observe and absorb. Coraline also learns the limits of her foe and plays them expertly but innocently. Gaiman knows how to sneak a worm into the heart of the most beautiful apple, and how to spring it to strike at the heart of both his reader and his characters. Knowing what the antagonist can and cannot do makes it seem more menacing for all its limits. Gaiman's focus on the menace at the center of the story belies his confidence in the characters that he's created to combat it.
Though I was originally somewhat off-put by the premise and the age level that this novel was intended for, having actually read the book, I stand corrected. 'Coraline' is a fine work of intricate prose and terror for any age. It will also satisfy a wider range of readers than one might at first expect. Science fiction readers will welcome Gaiman's imaginative discipline, while horror readers will enjoy his ability to scare the reader with skill in stead of slime. Children will welcome its easy prose, exciting story, and Dave McKean's creepy illustrations. Even readers of non-genre fiction will enjoy Gaiman's clever characterizations. You can see why the publishers are hot for this type of novel. It can -- and should -- sell extremely well.