Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Vulpes Libris’ All Time Greats: The Top Ten – No. 2

A repeating  pattern on Vulpes Libris over the last 5 years has been that often the reviews you expect to generate the most interest don’t – and others take you completely by surprise.  If we’d had our collective finger on the pulse of popular culture, the runaway success of this fine review might not have been quite so unexpected, because the animated film version of the original novel was released in the United States the day after the review originally went live on the 5th of February 2009. But its popularity is by no means entirely attributable  to timing, because it has seldom – if ever – been out of our top ten ever since and indeed, as if to emphasize the point,  has (yet again) been the most visited review on VL in the last seven days.

So here, to enjoy again, is Sharon Robinson’s excellent review of:

Coraline – The Graphic Novel: by Neil Gaiman and P Craig Russell

Coraline 1 This is a clever, inventive adaptation of a stylish ‘crossover’ novel, in which a young girl discovers an alternative reality to the one she thinks she knows. It is starkly illustrated with very few people in it. We see Coraline, her parents, the ‘other parents’ their neighbours and a shop assistant. The town Coraline visits with her mother seems to be devoid of people. This gives the novel the feel of a stage play, but it also reflects the self-absorbed view of a small girl. Coraline is still at the stage in her life when those outside her circle are not quite real.

There’s something chilly and off-balance about both worlds. In the ‘real’ one, it could be explained by the fact that Coraline and her parents have just moved into the house. The neighbours get her name wrong and her father’s cooking is peculiar to say the least, while both of her parents are too busy to pay her much attention. There are no other children around, so like many another lonely literary child – Alice, Mary Craven, (The Secret Garden) and  Harry Potter, Coraline has to find things out for herself.
The other parents are attentive, cook well and have plenty of time to spare their daughter, but  Coraline 9they are the stuff of nightmares. The other mother is feral-looking, with black-button eyes, rodent teeth and a truly horrible hand with a life of its own. Her demeanour – that of hungry coldness – is at odds with Coraline’s real mother, her warmth, occasional impatience and awful taste in school jumpers. The other father is a waxen creation of the other mother, not the solid figure who saves Coraline from a swarm of angry wasps. These creatures don’t know about love. They only know what they think will make them real and that’s Coraline.

Right from the start, Coraline knows these people aren’t right in some way, but she also knows she has to deal with them in order to save those she loves. This is clearer in the graphic novel  than in the original print version, where Coraline is depicted as younger and more naïve, around the same age as Alice. The graphic novel Coraline has the height, body shape and language skills Coraline 8of an eleven year old. The mention of her return to school suggests that Coraline might be about to start high school. If this is the case, it underlines the power in the narrative; growing up, discovering that your parents are flawed and loving them anyway, losing your identity and finding it again, and the importance of courage, loyalty and love.

In order to get there, Coraline has to separate herself from her parents and the other mother is a particularly good way to express that need. The other mother is more openly controlling, she talks to Coraline as if she were a small child and in order to free herself, Coraline has to take more decisive steps than she does with the real woman. The normal processes of growing up will separate them, but the other mother has to be shaken off in a much more decided way.

The artwork is very pared-down, with enough detail to make it chilling. As well as the other Coraline 7mother  (a wonderfully horrible creation) the rats are very impressive and the whole conveys a sense of the very real and practical with the unworldly. The story is very simple so the artwork suits it without overburdening it or distracting from the narrative.

In tone, the novel pulls in Alice in Wonderland, elements of the modern fairy story and Angela Carter. Without being lurid and gruesome, it’s powerful and frightening and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as bedtime reading for the very young or very nervous. However, if that’s not you and you like a good scare, it’s an intelligent presentation of a beautiful little gem of a novel.

Bloomsbury. 2008.  ISBN: 978-0747594062.  192pp.

3 comments on “Vulpes Libris’ All Time Greats: The Top Ten – No. 2

  1. Jackie
    September 24, 2012

    It was good to feature a graphic novel on VL & to compare it with the traditional novel too. This was a well rounded review & I liked how the art was discussed. Being of the nervous sort, I can’t read any version of it, but it deserves it’s popularity.

  2. Sharon Robinson
    September 25, 2012

    Thank you for your kind comments Jackie. This review was a lot of fun to write, partly because of the graphic novel element, but also because it’s backed up by a strong narrative. Neil Gaiman knows how to scare the reader half silly without being gory and disgusting. He’s rather like M.R James, E.F Benson and other writers of classic ghost stories in that. But you are right; there’s a line where fear isn’t pleasurable, it’s unpleasant and only the individual can decide where their particular line is.

  3. Lisa
    September 27, 2012

    Great to revisit this review. I saw the film version of Coraline again recently and found it deeply creepy. Those black buttons…

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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