Book Review: Coraline

Dec 05, 2019 by Erin Yun

Coraline is holding a lit candle taper holder in the dark and is looking forward. In the black background are transparent hands stretching towards her.
At the start of the novel, Coraline has just moved into a new home. While her parents busy themselves with work, Coraline fills the time by exploring her environment, visiting her eccentric neighbors, and counting the windows and doors in her house. However, her explorations take a dangerous turn when she discovers a locked door. Or, rather, when she discovers what’s behind the locked door – and that’s a house that looks like Coraline’s house. Only, this house is much more sinister. Inside waits Coraline’s Other Mother, and her Other Father, with their gleaming button eyes, and hungry smiles, who wish for Coraline to stay there with them in this other world...forever.


It might have taken me a while to crack open this book, but once I did, the pages blurred by. Gaiman writes in a direct, concise style here, which makes it easy to keep telling yourself “one more page, one more page” until you’re completely absorbed. Plus, once you encounter the antagonist, it’s even harder to tear yourself away. The Other Mother makes for a wickedly creepy villain – her origins are ambiguous, her big black button eyes reveal nothing, and she is more than willing to let the souls of kids wither away in her closet for centuries. Literally my worst nightmare. But despite the Other Mother scaring the creeps out of Coraline, too, when the Other Mother kidnaps her real parents, Coraline is courageous enough to face her foe head on.


One thing I noticed while reading Coraline was Gaiman’s emphasis on names, and, more specifically, names as an extension of the self. At the start of the book, the first interaction we witness is Coraline’s neighbors, the elderly couple Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, calling Coraline Caroline. Coraline’s first words are a correction: “It’s Coraline. Not Caroline.” Not that this correction matters – time and time, both Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, as well as the old man who lives upstairs, get Coraline’s name wrong. To me, this represents Coraline during a time where she, too, is still discovering who she is as a person (a process that, for many people, can take their whole lives). We don’t know how old Coraline is, but we do know that she is a child who doesn’t have full autonomy yet – her parents still dictate things like where she can explore, and what she is allowed to do.


This alone doesn’t equate names with the self, but Coraline’s interaction with a talking cat (who is able to move fluidly between the real world and the Other Mother’s realm) seems to solidify this: “You people have names,” the cat says. “That’s because you don’t know who you are.” Here, names seem to have a clear function – something that helps shape a person’s identity. The children with the lost souls who Coraline encounters have no names, either, as they have long forgotten them, and are now withering away. Coraline is able to avoid the same fate only through embracing the characteristics that the adults in her life hardly appreciate – such as her excellent exploratory skills. As the story progresses, and Coraline shows herself to be a brave, resourceful, adventurous, and caring person, it seems her confidence and comfort with herself as a person has skyrocketed. She comes home, where for the first time, the old man who lives above her actually listens when she tells him her name is Coraline, not Caroline.


While this might have seemed like a tangent, I think it speaks to the ways Coraline is not just a book about a girl who encounters a monster with button for eyes (although, of course, it is that) but also a book about a girl learning to embrace the qualities that make her her. And that’s something that countless children, and, not to mention, many adults, will find immensely relatable. I know I did.


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