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by Neil Gaiman

hardcover edition

I once read a comic book, not by Neil Gaiman but very much inspired by him, which featured monsters that had arisen from the collective frustration, despair, and rage of all the stinging insects that have ever died, beating in futility, against the insides of windowpanes. This was both one of the most loathsomely creepy and most mournful ideas I'd ever run across. Gaiman's latest, Coraline, reminded me strongly of that feeling. It's a real flashlight-under-your-face kind of book, but even its scariest beasties seem to be leading existences of quiet desperation. Maybe it's because they're English.

Coraline Jones' parents have just moved into an apartment in a huge old house and turned her loose to explore. Apparently they've never read any British children's literature, or they'd realize this just begs for disaster: ghosts, or sand fairies, or counterfeiters, or at the very least the culmination of an ancient battle between Good and Evil. The house and its grounds are well-equipped for exploration and ancient battles; it has a dangerous well, an aloof black cat, menacing rats, vacant flats, quirky tenants, and a door that opens onto a brick wall. Coraline is, of course, drawn to the mysterious door. She winds up trapped on the other side, in a mirror world very similar to her own, but much, much creepier.

There are a few very scary bits and several very ghastly monsters, but the surreal atmosphere and general lack of depth made it difficult for me to really submerge into the story. Too much is left unexplained. I wanted this book to have the depth and richness of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass or Garth Nix's Sabriel, but instead it's short and streamlined.

Neil Gaiman's prose, as usual, has a deadpan humor that makes you laugh and say "ugh" at the same time. The book design is lovely, too, with illustrations by Dave McKean that are wonderfully dark and askew. The dustjacket is especially good, with elongated matte black hands reaching out for Coraline.

If you're not a particular fan of Gaiman's writing, I'd recommend waiting for the paperback. If you're shopping for a kid, this book is likely to be a hit, although young children may lose some sleep to it. (I'm all in favor of scaring the snot out of kids; first, because they love it, and second, because you wind up with less snotty kids.)

Coraline is a pleasantly creepy way to spend a few hours, but it's lightweight; I wish Gaiman had given freer rein to his inner psycopath.

"You're sick," said Coraline. "Sick and evil and weird."

"Is that any way to talk to your mother?" her other mother asked, with her mouth full of blackbeetles.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
August 2002

hardcover edition
Publisher: HarperCollins
Date: July 2002
ISBN: 0-380-97778-8
Binding: hardcover
Pages: 162
Price: US $15.99

If you like this book, you will probably also enjoy:

Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman: Smoke And Mirrors
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Aug 2002 / CMS