The other mother
Philip Pullman is spooked by Neil Gaiman's Coraline, a beautifully judged novel of mysterious purpose
Saturday August 31, 2002
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
171pp, Bloomsbury, �9.99
Neil Gaiman made his name as a writer of graphic novels, but he showed himself to be a skilful novelist of the text-only sort, too, with American Gods, an exceptionally original fantasy-horror story. That book showed that Gaiman had a rich imagination, a clear and effective prose style, and an ability to tackle large themes. So I was looking forward to Coraline, his new children's novel, and I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I was enthralled.
The story occupies a territory somewhere between Lewis Carroll's Alice and Catherine Storr's classic fantasy of warning and healing, Marianne Dreams. Coraline lives alone with her parents in a flat in an old house, the other flats being occupied by an eccentric old man who trains mice, and two elderly retired actresses. Coraline's parents are kindly but absent-minded and preoccupied with their work, so Coraline - who seems to be about Alice's age - has had to rely on herself, not only for entertainment, but also for sensible things like eating and washing and putting herself to bed.
The narrative voice is not Coraline's, but hers are the only thoughts and feelings we are told about, so she is at the centre of the story. This is the best point of view from which to tell a story about a child: the telling voice is an adult's, so it can plausibly observe and say things a child would not, but all the sympathy is with the child. Gaiman brings it off with a skill that you wouldn't notice unless you were looking for it.
And the matter-of-fact tone is important, because this is a marvellously strange and scary book. When Coraline finds a door that opens into another flat strangely like her own, but subtly different (thus making the classic transition from here, where we live, to there, where the mysteries begin), we believe what we're told. And when she discovers a sinister woman there, who looks a little like her mother but has eyes that are big black buttons, the matter-of-factness of the woman's response when Coraline says "Who are you?" is both disarming and terrifying. "I'm your other mother," she says.
And so begins a struggle for Coraline's soul. Gaiman is too intelligent and subtle to invoke the supernatural - this is much more mysterious than that - and too wise to let Coraline face the horrors alone: she has an ally in a sardonic and very feline cat. But the dangers are real, and part of the richness of the story comes from the fact that it offers many meanings without imposing any. For example, when the other mother shows Coraline a mirror in which she sees her real parents, and hears them seeming to say "How nice it is, not to have Coraline any more . . . Now we can do all the things we always wanted to do," we can see for a moment what it would be like to read the story as the acting-out of some unconscious sense of rejection on Coraline's part; but it is touched on so lightly that a moment later it's left behind. The story is much too clever to be caught in the net of a single interpretation.
Gaiman's ear is acute. At one point the other mother says of Coraline's real parents: "If they have left you, Coraline, it must be because they became bored with you," to which Coraline replies stoutly: "They weren't bored of me." With and of: the words catch their two voices exactly. This invention reaches to the smallest details. In the other flat, the toys are alive: at one point a little tank tips over on its back in its eagerness to greet her, and when Coraline sets it upright, it flees under the bed in embarrassment.
There is much more. There is the creepy atmosphere of the other flat - the scariest apartment since the one in David Lynch's film Lost Highway; there is the tender and beautifully judged ending; and above all, there is Coraline herself, brave and frightened, self-reliant and doubtful, and finally triumphant. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, rise to your feet and applaud: Coraline is the real thing.
� Philip Pullman is the author of the Dark Materials trilogy (Scholastic).
Was interviewed about comics by the History Channel, and afterward, in the lobby, ran into Stan Lee, who was to be their next interview. He is twice my age, and still as enthusiastic as a teenager. It was good to see him. I told him a little about 1602, and he got all excited, which was a joy to see.
Drop in signings (Mystery Bookshop and Golden Apple) and then down to Irvine for the Southern California Children's Booksellers Association annual dinner. They gave Sid Fleischman their lifetime achievement award, and had two authors and two artists give talks. It was fun. I talked about how to write Coraline, and read them "Crazy Hair".
The drop in signing at the Mystery Bookshop proved to be expensive, as the owner asked sort of casually if I'd like to see a copy of "My Crowd" by Charles Addams, signed to Phil Silvers, and then signed by Phil Silvers, and he showed it to me, and I asked how much it was. I might have been able to resist a signed Charles Addams book, but I love Phil Silvers, and was astonished on coming to America to learn that while the British love and revere the classic Bilko episodes (the ones in Kansas), otherwise cultured and intelligent Americans barely know who Duane Doberman was. It makes you think. So I bought my book.
I know I said I wouldn't talk about bestseller lists much on the blog, but Coraline's at #1 in hardcover and American Gods at #1 in paperback at the BookSmith in San Franciscohttp://www.booksmith.com/bestsellers.html and dammit, that's pretty cool. (Coraline's also at #3 on the San Francisco Chronicle adult hardcover list.)
We're also still #1 in Ireland.
Was sent this -- it's an interview that was done with me in early 1999. Interesting to see what I had to say about Coraline when I was half-way through it.
And the Harlan Ellison collaboration is still not finished. I'll ask Harlan about it tomorrow morning.