This is Neil Gaiman’s first fantasy book for children, but adults will quickly be absorbed into the plot. The New York Times Book Review said that is was “One of the most frightening books ever written”. This seems like a pretty bold statement considering the body of scary books available but it is a testimony to Gaiman’s writing skills with this plot.
Coraline Jones and her family’s new home is an old house divided into flats. The space above and below has unusual tenants. The two ladies below them give her a cup of tea and a special piece of wood with a hole that will protect you when you look through the special hole in it. The man above them, Mr. Bobo, has some trained mice that warn Coraline to never go through the door. She sets out to explore and finds the door. Her mother shows her the special key for the door and they open it, but it has a brick wall behind it.
Eventually she goes back to the door alone and opens it again, only to find a dark hall, which of course she just walks right into. What quickly looks like a very scary situation is met with a matter of fact unquestioning approach, but Coraline tells us that how she needs to act “to be brave”.
The long hallway leads to a parallel world where she becomes trapped. Gaiman excels in his descriptive writing of this other world. It is complete with “other parents” who have large button eyes. She learns that her real parents have been stolen and hidden and she finds what is left of three young children who were trapped there and had their souls stolen and hidden. Her cat somehow makes it to this place, but the cat can talk in this world and is a help. After being locked in a dark closet with the three soulless children she decides to free her parents and to find the lost souls by challenging her not-mother to a contest.
The contest is a life and death struggle but she finally gets back and saves her parents, and the lost children, and they are able to leave on their own. Even safe back in the real world she learns that her other-mother has sent a severed hand to get the door key from her. She eventually overcomes that threat. Her parents seem to pay more attention to her, after all this has happened, but of course they don’t remember what happened to them.
Quotes by Neil Gaiman
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
“What's your name,' Coraline asked the cat. 'Look, I'm Coraline. Okay?'
'Cats don't have names,' it said.
'No?' said Coraline.
'No,' said the cat. 'Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names.”