No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Coraline -- Neil Gaiman

Coraline is the personification of the adage that good little children are seen and not heard. "It's Coraline," she explains to one adult after another; "Coraline, not Caroline." And each of the adults – her parents, the residents of the other flats in the house where she lives – nods and smiles and doesn't hear Coraline at all.

Coraline is not deprived in the traditional sense of the word. She isn't a modern-day Cinderella, banished to the kitchen to skivvy for the rest of the family; she isn't starved or beaten, and she has no evil stepmother or ambitious sibling to fear. Instead, she suffers the benign neglect of the modern age. She is the only child of parents who love her but who are emotionally absent. They don't have time for her, and they don't make time to listen, to play, to let her be a child.

She's not starved in the sense of not having enough to eat, but she refuses to touch her father's gourmet cooking. "Daddy, you've made a recipe again," she complains as she prepares her microwave pizza and chips. She's not dressed in rags, but her mother ignores her tastes – and her playful pretences – when they're shopping for clothes. She obediently explores the family's new home as instructed by her parents, but even while exploring Coraline maintains an air of self-sufficient composure rather than a sense of adventure.

The adults around Coraline all inhabit their own worlds. Her parents, both working from home, are caught up in adult concerns, whatever they might be; Coraline doesn’t care, or perhaps doesn't know, so we never find out what it is that they do. Elsewhere in the house live the Misses Spink and Forcible, former actresses who share a flat and a collection of Highland terriers, and reminisce about the time when they 'trod the boards'. Upstairs lives the crazy old man with the mouse circus, which Coraline decides is probably imaginary; she has never been allowed to see the mice. She does not comment on the message they send her via the old man: 'Don't go through the door'. And she doesn't reply when the old man tells her that the mice have got her name wrong: "Coraline. Not Caroline at all."

It's Coraline, of course, who finds the door. It's a door that leads nowhere – it opens onto a brick wall – and Coraline's mother unlocks it to demonstrate this. Because no one listens to Coraline, the door remains unlocked. And because Coraline doesn't believe in the mice and their message, she gives in to the lure of the mysterious; she opens the door again.

There she discovers a strangely distorted world where her 'other mother' smiles at her, and prepares a tasty roast dinner. She meets her other father, the other crazy old man with his fiery-eyed rats, the other Misses Spink and Forcible with their unsavoury stage show. She does not care for their eyes. She meets a cat. She chooses to go back to her own world, back through the door.

And there, if the author was more conservative or the target audience younger, the story would end. Coraline would lock the door behind her and restore safety and harmony to her world. The old order would be re-established. All would be well.

"She waited for her parents to come back."

But all is not well.

Coraline's parents are nowhere to be found, and while at first this heralds a grand adventure – watching TV after the watershed, eating chocolate cake for dinner – the novelty soon wears off. Coraline tells Miss Spink that her parents are missing, but Miss Spink either doesn't hear or doesn't care. Fighting to remain calm and sensible and self-sufficient, Coraline acts according to the rules of the real, adult world. She calls the police to report her parents' disappearance; but the police officer, who is very firmly rooted in the real world, chuckles indulgently and ... doesn't listen.

Once common sense has been exhausted, Coraline has no alternative but to apply the rules of magic. To rescue her parents, she has to go back through the door. She's already seeing her situation with a kind of bifocal vision, allowing her to perceive the magical as well as the real: "she had the feeling that the door was looking back at her, which she knew was silly, and knew on a deeper level was somehow true."

The world on the other side of the door is a mirror world, full of reflections and distortions, but it's an altogether colder place than the colourful, eccentric toy-chest of Lewis Carroll's looking-glass adventures. This is a tiny pocket universe that, though not quite Elfland or the Hollow Hills, is constructed according to the folklore of Northern Europe.

It is only Coraline who does not have an 'other' in that other world. She has her uniqueness to protect her; that and her name, since she is entering a realm where names are rare and valuable. (Nothing on the wrong side of the door seems to have a name of its own; not even the cat, which, like most animal guides, moves easily between the two worlds). She is entering what looks very much like a trap, and she is doing it of her own free will to fetch back her parents. It's an act that demonstrates rare courage; simply going into the unknown is nothing compared to facing mortal peril for a second time.

The world through the door is a glittering web, and it's baited especially for Coraline. How else would everyone there already know her name when she stepped through the black door for the first time? There's that delicious roast dinner (with its echoes of Persephone's pomegranate, and the addictive or binding food of the Fair Folk); the garments in Coraline's other wardrobe are dressing-up clothes of sumptuous fabrics, and the toys in the cupboard really fly, fight, and dance.

Best of all, Coraline's other mother wants to make her life interesting. She plays on Coraline's only-child loneliness and her sense of being special and misunderstood. She even tells Coraline that her real parents have abandoned her because they had become bored with her: "I will never become bored with you," she promises.

Coraline may be ripe prey for this sort of focussed attention, but she is far too sensible to fall for that trick. The cat has already told her a little about the other mother – 'her kind of thing loves games and challenges' – and Coraline has obviously read enough of the right books to understand the rules that apply on this side of the door. Her innate common sense may balk at the whole set-up, but she is clever enough to understand that she can only win by playing the game. She challenges the other mother to a treasure hunt; the 'treasures' are the souls of earlier victims, and the prize is the release of her parents and herself.

"What if you succeed?" jibes the other mother. "You'll go home. You'll be bored. You'll be ignored. No one will listen to you, not really listen to you. You're too clever and too quiet for them."

Coraline, who undoubtedly sees the germ of truth in that judgment, stands up to the Evil Stepmother – or the Faerie Queen, or the Witch – and says, ""What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that and it didn't mean anything … I don't want what I want. Nobody does. Not really."

It's a choice Gaiman has described elsewhere; in Good Omens, for example, when Adam Young rejects his Satanic heritage in favour of normal life. This is the triumph of the mundane over the magical, of good sense over cheap, untrustworthy glamour that promises everything but delivers dead leaves and tawdry fakes. For all her magical powers and her mirror-world, the other mother is a lonely, inhuman creature who can't get what she wants except by trickery. She can't create anything. She doesn't understand love, or loyalty, or contentment. She can't even distinguish between boredom and interest. Coraline is immeasurably wealthier than she will ever be, and knows it.

By following the rules that apply in all magical realms – be polite, befriend those in need, help where you can, think before you speak – Coraline unravels the web, springs the traps, finds the treasure, and discovers what has been hidden in plain sight. She goes back through the door a heroine – and this matters to her, not because she has overcome the forces of evil, but because she has won her real mother's approval.

"She wants something to love. She might want something to eat as well."

And still it isn't over. There are no easy victories. The other mother has been beaten, and she's furious.

One of the rescued souls advised Coraline to 'be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.' She's already shown her wisdom in following the rules of the magical kingdom. Her bravery lies in going back, in returning, in following through. And her trickery is of the same school as the other mother's; protective coloration, games, pretence and flimsy illusion. In a finale that pays visual homage to the most self-indulgent horror movies, Coraline closes the portal to the small, featureless world. Her reward is to see anew all the fascinating detail of the mundane, the sheer 'interestingness' of the real world, beside which the tricks and lures of the other mother pale into insignificance.

Things will never be quite the same between Coraline and her parents. They don't speak of their imprisonment, but it's not as though much time has passed in the outside world. Perhaps they have forgotten; perhaps it was all a dream. Gaiman never confronts the question of objective reality, just as he never discusses the true nature of the other mother or the reasons why Coraline has no friends of her own age.

Coraline has changed too; the real-world anxieties that once plagued her seem unimportant now. "There was nothing left about school that could scare her any more." This echoes the quotation from G. K. Chesterton that prefaces the book: "Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Coraline has faced her fears and overcome them. She's learnt to value play and pretence, qualities that count in the magical realm, as well as the courage and composure that she needs in the real world. Perhaps, in defeating the other mother, she has also begun to think about loneliness, and the ways in which people build their own imaginary worlds.

written for Foundation, the critical journal of the Science Fiction Foundation, 2003