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12.24.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

On the back cover of Neil Gaiman’s new children’s book, Coraline, is a quote from Diana Wynne Jones, who compares the book to Alice in Wonderland. The two books are indeed very similar. Both are about small girls who discover surreal secret worlds (in Alice's case, down a rabbit hole; in Coraline's case, behind a locked door in their new house) and both books involve talking cats.

The world that Coraline discovers has been created for her by her Other Mother, a powerful being with long black fingernails and buttons for eyes. The Other Mother has created twisted replicas of Coraline's house, family and neighbours, and wants to keep Coraline there "for ever and always" so that she’ll have someone to love.

Neil Gaiman is a master at creating strange alternate worlds and at populating them with weird and wonderful characters, and in Coraline he does this with his usual skill and attention to detail: there’s Miss Spink and Miss Forcible’s endless theatre; there’s the Crazy Old Man and his mouse circus; there’s the living corridor that joins the two worlds. But as with previous works (such as Neverwhere) the wonderful setting somewhat upstages the rather simplistic story-line. The story seems to be merely a device for showcasing the Otherworld.

Despite a few attempts to make the Other Mother into a sympathetic character, she’s pretty one-dimensionally evil, and the battle-of-wits that she and Coraline engage in is unimaginative (it’s nothing on Russell Hoban’s brilliant How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen). The Cat is the best character. He behaves exactly how you would expect a talking cat to behave, and he has some great lines:
"We…we could be friends, you know," said Coraline.
"We could be rare specimens of an exotic breed of African dancing elephants," said the cat. "But we’re not. At least," it added cattily, after darting a brief look at Coraline, "I’m not."

In spite of what Diana Wynne Jones may claim, Coraline is unlikely to "nudge Alice in Wonderland out of its niche at last." Alice in Wonderland is not only a great children’s story, it is also extremely clever, with layer upon layer of subtlety that you only begin to catch as an adult (check out Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice); Coraline, however, is just a great children’s story.

Don’t get me wrong, writing a genuinely good children’s story is no mean feat, and Gaiman has accomplished it admirably with Coraline. The illustrations by Dave McKean (who also worked with Gaiman on The Sandman comic book series) are wonderfully creepy, and it’s the sort of book that kids will love. All in all, it’s pretty much what you would expect from a children’s book written by Neil Gaiman: it’s whimsical, dark, creepy, funny, intelligent and well-crafted. But, nudge as it might, it's no Alice in Wonderland.

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