Thursday, March 27, 2008

Coraline and Others

I recently read Coraline by Neil Gaiman after coming across a post about the book on Eloise by the Book Piles (one of my very favorite reading blogs). It’s a whimsical, spooky tale written for “readers of all ages” as book blurb writers like to say. It’s also creepy and disturbing, with a dash of mordant humor thrown in for good measure. Okay, more than a dash. When she turns up after a long absence in a department store and her mother wants to know where she has been, Coraline has an answer ready: “I was kidnapped by aliens. They came down from outer space with ray guns, but I fooled them by wearing a wig and laughing in a foreign accent, and I escaped.” Her story is wasted on her preoccupied mother, however, as are her explanations to adults that her name is not Caroline.

Coraline’s parents have recently moved into a flat in an old house. In the drawing room is a locked door which opens on a brick wall. BUT, one day when Coraline opens the door she finds something different: “It opened on to a dark hallway. The bricks had gone as if they’d never been there. There was a cold, musty smell coming through the open doorway: it smelled like something very old and very slow.” Despite a warning from the musical mice owned by the crazy old man upstairs, Coraline goes through the door. On the other side she finds a flat nearly identical to her own. She also finds a woman who looks a little like her mother, only her skin is paper white, her fingers are too long, and her dark red fingernails are curved and sharp. Caroline’s other mother wants to keep her, and the young girl soon finds that getting back to her own world will require all of her cunning, courage, and help from those who have also been trapped by the other mother.

I have read four books along somewhat similar lines over the past six months. In addition to Coraline, these include The Book of Lost Things by Jonathan Connolly, The Thief of Always by Clive Barker, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I reread this last book for the first time since my childhood after hearing that L’Engle had passed away last September.

Of these, Gaiman’s is perhaps the most effectively plotted maintaining a consistent tone from the start and ending on a fittingly clever and creepy note. Connolly’s story is seriously flawed, as I discuss in some detail in my post on his book. Barker stands out for characterization and style. He is in a different league from the rest of the group. His characters are well-dimensioned and compelling and his prose is no less than enchanting. I found his tale the most engaging, though diminished somewhat by an anticlimatic, pat conclusion.

L’Engle is arguably the least accomplished writer of the quartet. I had forgotten her story literally begins with the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” What a hoot! Despite the corn and camp, though, and there is plenty of that, her story struck me as more fun than all the rest combined. I read it as an adolescent, so nostalgia might account for part of that response. But it seems to me another factor is she did not try to write Wrinkle in Time for all ages. She wrote the story for kids and expends no energy working in bits that read differently for adults. In other words, she didn’t go out of her way to be sophisticated. It seems to me the honest homespun has worn quite well.

1 comment:

Eloise said...

I'm glad you enjoyed Coraline, I'm looking forward to the film. I've just read my first Barker, Abarat, and agree he is a superb story teller. I can recommend it, although it is very much a first installment in a quartet he is only half way through, which is a little frustrating as I want to read the whole story at once!