Good ol’ Terry Pratchett reckons Coraline is a masterpiece. Or at least he was happy enough to have that praise attributed to him on the book’s cover. But you know what? He was right.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman is an almost perfect little story. And I say almost perfect just because I don’t think anything in this world can be totally flawless. But let’s just say that if this book was being judged in the new HSC it’d be getting a 99.5 (i.e. the highest score it could get). After all, we don’t want Mr Gaiman to down tools and never write again.
So why oh Pile-o-books is this such a wonderful tale? Well, it just is. Let’s face it, if I could could explain in an articulate and entertaining manner why a book is just about perfect in 500 words I’d be pushing Motoko out the door and writing for the New York Times. But I can tell you why I liked it.
I read quite a bit of ‘children’s’ literature and when I manage to padlock myself to my laptop, and not do online crosswords or buy crap on ebay, and actually write fiction, more often than not I write for younger people. One theme of children’s literature (or in fact children protagonists in any genre of fiction) that I’m very interested in is the idea of the absent parent. Whether this be through tragedy (death or illlness), emotional circumstances (mum and dad being too wrapped up themselves), geography (kids are at boarding school), world events (adults are at war) or fantastical (kidnapped by evil fairies), you nearly always have to get rid of the guardians so that the young characters can come into their own, discover their strengths, prove their worth as humans and save the day. Parents are pesky when it comes to fun and adventures, but usually necessary for survival and love, so most of the time we want them to come back at the end.
Coraline’s parents aren’t bad people. They’re just busy and leave their daughter to entertain herself in her school holidays among their nutty neighbours. But Coraline is unhappy with the lack of attention she is getting and finds herself in a position most children have cried out for in times of angst and upset – she finds, after crawling down a secret passage to a mirror world of her own, that she has an ‘Other Mother’ and ‘Other Father’. When our heroine realises that her other parents are not what she hoped (in fact, they are button-eyed monster types who eat bugs and steal children’s souls) and tries to get back to her real life, her parents are missing and Coraline must outwit the Other Mother to save them and herself.
How could you not love a well-written book with secret passages, talking cats, circus performing mice, nutty neighbours, the ghosts of lost children, a life-threatening quest, monsters, magic stones and a mysterious wells? Seriously, how could you not? I defy you to try. Coraline has the right combination of reality and fantasy, of eccentric characters with characters who are realistically drawn. Little devices like how most of the adults mispronounce Coraline’s name (they call her Caroline) and how they seem not to hear her frustrated corrections, lend the story authenticity and humour. Gaiman writes so that you feel Coraline’s fear, that you want her to beat the evil soul-sucking monster and be reunited with her parents, even if as an adult you’re fairly certain everything will be OK. And the talking cat rocks.
I reckon Coraline is a masterpiece. And you don’t have to believe me. You can believe Terry Pratchett and the thousands of others who love this book.
PS: I also watched the animated, 3D film during the Sydney Film Festival and it was fab.