Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Review - Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Short review: Young girl is dissatisfied. Young girl finds empty fun. Young girl learns that things aren't always what they seem.

In a brand new house
Coraline looks for fun things
Her other mother

Full review: I've read my fair share of creepy books aimed at children. Coraline is the one that I think would probably be the scariest for a child to read. It isn't as over the top as some others, but it touches on those fears that are closest to a child's heart - threats to their parents and their home, and turns the concept of love upside down.

Coraline is a precocious little girl living in a new apartment building who apparently has no other children living close enough to be playmates. Her parents seem to be more or less benignly indifferent to her, consumed with their own concerns and exhibiting, at best, a distant kind of love. Coraline does some exploring and interacts with the handful of quirky other residents that share the apartment building, each of whom is only mildly interested in Coraline (they get her name wrong among other sins).

Then the story takes a turn. Coraline finds a passageway to a house that isn't really her house where she finds her "other mother" and her "other father", who are sort of close facsimiles of Coralin's real parents, but with button eyes. They are extraordinarily loving, allowing Coraline to do pretty much anything she wants, supplying her with a pile of magical toys, and otherwise showering her with the attention she doesn't get at her real home.

Coraline enjoys herself, at first, and then things start to go awry. The "other mother" doesn't want her to leave and go back to the real world. When Coraline does, her real parents disappear. She finally returns to the other world, and finds things are not as cheery as they were her first visit - everything starts to basically melt away and Coraline finds herself confronted with a loving, but decidedly malevolent "other mother".

The book is effective because it touches upon some of the basic fears we all had a children - the fear of being locked in a dark space, the fear of being in an alien place, the fear of losing your parents, the fear of being kidnapped, the fear of losing your own identity. And the story is made all the more frightening because the agent of all these horrors is a creature that loves Coraline, albeit in a possessive and (if it is possible to say this) malicious way. Coraline has to fight to get herself and those around her out of the slowly disintegrating other world, and all the while she is shown exactly how much failing to escape will cost her.

All turns out reasonably well (this is a book aimed at younger readers after all), although the "other mother" does get something of a creepy second act after she has apparently been defeated, and the final resolution seemed to me to leave the possibility that the "other mother" could eventually escape.Overall, this is the creepiest children's book I have read, and one of the best as well.

Review of 2002 Hugo Winner for Best Novella: Fast Times at Fairmont High by Vernor Vinge
Review of 2004 Hugo Winner for Best Novella: The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge

Review of 2004 Locus Winner for Best Young Adult Book: The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Review of 2003 Nebula Winner for Best Novella: Bronte's Egg by Richard Chwedyk
Review of 2005 Nebula Winner for Best Novella: The Green Leopard Plague by Walter Jon Williams

What are the Hugo Awards?

2003 Hugo Award Finalists
2003 Locus Award Nominees
2003 Mythopoeic Award Nominees
2003 World Fantasy Award Nominees

Hugo Best Novella Winners
Locus Best Young Adult Book Winners
Nebula Best Novelette Winners

Neil Gaiman     Book Award Reviews     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. I was still relatively young when Coraline came out and I remember how for months afterwards, I refused to wear anything with black buttons on it. It's not just a creepy book (and obviously a good one), it's the type of fantasy that makes you think, "Well, why couldn't this really exist?" Always a good type of book for kids of a certain age!

  2. @Biblibio: The best horror books are the ones that take the everyday and make it threatening. Coraline takes simple things like family and buttons, and makes them terrifying.