Coraline Jones is not very different from that of many young fantasy heroines. She’s bright and imaginative, with parents who are kind but don’t have much time for her. And like so many other heroines, on one boring, rainy day she goes exploring and finds a doorway into another world.
That’s where the similarities end. Coraline doesn’t find a fabulous destiny or telepathic unicorns; she finds a mirror replica of her home, and waiting in it are her “other mother” and “other father,” who want her to stay with them so they can love her and play with her forever. All she has to do is let them sew black buttons over her eyes, like the ones they have over theirs. Coraline refuses, but when she gets home she finds that the other mother has kidnapped her real parents. To rescue them, she must return to the other world.
Coraline is a beautifully written book. The tone and narrative voice never falter. Gaiman has mastered the art of evocative creepiness, creating a story that resonnates of the subconscious, half-mythic level of truly great fairy tales. His world is filled with figures that are almost recognizable and events that seem full of meaning without ever resolving themselves into simplistic allegory. (He also writes one of the best characterizations of a cat that I have ever seen; the book is worth reading for that aspect alone.)
On a moral level, Coraline is a pretty good book. Some people might be concerned that (while still in our world), Coraline receives a good-luck charm and has her future read through tea-leaves. However, I thought that these were no more than minor flaws. And the book does have some very good (albeit non-religious) messages. I was impressed by the depiction of Coraline’s relationship with her parents. Coraline risks her life and soul to save people who are profoundly imperfect but whom she still loves deeply. Gaiman realizes that the annoyances and frustrations of relationships are a necessary result of being with real people instead of fantasies. He illustrates it beautifully in a scene where one of the other mother’s creatures tries to tempt Coraline into staying.
“What if you do everything you swore you would? What then? Nothing’s changed. You’ll go home. You’ll be bored. You’ll be ignored. No on will listen to you, not really listen to you. You’re too clever and too quiet for them to understand. . . . We will listen to you and play with you and laugh with you. Your other mother will build whole worlds for you to explore, and tear them down every night when you are done. . . .”
Coraline sighed. “You really don’t understand, do you?” she said. “I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”
Coraline is marketed as a children’s book, and its content could definitely be called “clean.” However, it is extremely creepy and sometimes rather grotesque; I would definitely recommend caution in administering it to children or indeed anyone who scares easily.