Dualism in literature series: Coraline

In the third of our “Dualism in literature” series, Annette Ong reviews Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Published in 2002, the horror/fantasy novella was made into an Oscar-nominated film in 2009.

Coraline sighed. “You really don’t understand, do you? I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does… what fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”

Neil Gaiman called his novel “Coraline” after repeatedly making a typing error, having meant to write “Caroline”. After this continued to happen, he developed this mysterious character and her story slowly emerged. There’s something to be said for the existence of a gift within an error – a dual world, where something first viewed as a mistake is able to produce something good, worthwhile, perhaps better.

Coraline is a modern fairytale, starting on a gloomy winter’s day that sees the protagonist stuck at home and incredibly bored. She decides to explore the house, eventually finding a dead door in the hallway that, as far as she has always known, leads to nowhere. It turns out, however, to be a magical portal into another world, a world that is the opposite of Coraline’s safe, real existence. The other world has talking animals. Coraline’s spinster neighbours, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible are also there, as well as the crazy old man from upstairs and her “other” parents.

Initially, Coraline thinks this ulterior world is charmed and marvellous. It’s certainly much better than the real world, where there’s little to do and her parents are too busy with work to bother with her. Beyond the door, in contrast, Coraline’s “other” mother and father are very attentive to her needs. There’s also the best roast chicken and vegetables for lunch and her bedroom is full of remarkable toys she’s never seen before. However, the more time she spends there, Coraline develops a sense that something sinister and untoward is lurking beneath the veneer. And on returning to normality, she discovers her real parents have gone missing.

Coraline’s “other” mother and father begin to insist she become their daughter. It seems they have little intention of ever letting her go. Suddenly, the ordinary and mundane life Coraline previously despised becomes the life she desires. The moral at the story’s heart is a classic case of “the grass is always greener”;  of getting what we want and then realising it’s not what we thought it would be. Idealising a situation can be detrimental to the real one under your nose.

Gaiman is renowned for the magical element within his novels, and Coraline is no exception. The story is inhabited by talking animals, her “other” parents’ have buttons for eyes and there’s an enchanted stone – one that allows her to see through the illusion and, eventually, free herself.

Coraline is a wonderful story and a beautifully written novel, guaranteed to bring the reader on a fantastic journey into a slightly scary world. Not just for children, it’s a great read for those who enjoy books similar to the Narnia chronicles and Alice in Wonderland.

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