Posts Tagged ‘Coraline’

Woohoo my first finished novel of 2015 and a start to my Reading Challenge!

2015/01/img_6453.jpg

This book was not what I expected. There was something very evocative and intriguing about both the title and cover – as well as the photographs inside. Almost all of which, according to the note appended to the novel, are genuine and authentic found photographs. I was expecting something haunting and thought provoking and this … wasn’t.

Now, I fully accept that my dissatisfaction with this book is probably in part because I misjudged the audience for it. But I think Ransom Riggs may have done the same. I had expected this to be an adult book and it’s not. Hence disappointment. But here’s the thing: as any cursory review of my blog will reveal, I have no problem with Young Adult books. I love Young Adult books and see no reason why they shouldn’t be included in the Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prizes. I mean, look at just three: My Sister Lives On The Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Anything by Patrick Ness. Sublime.

So, the shift in gear in my expectation from Adult to Young Adult was not the source of my problem. It just wasn’t hugely good.

Here’s the premise: Jacob Portman was brought up on his grandfather’s tales of monsters and children with strange powers. He believed these to be fairytales or repressed memories of Nazi oppression until he nearly witnessed one of these monsters murdering his grandfather. A series of clues lead to an island off Wales where his grandfathers fairytales suddenly prove themselves true.

There are echoes here of the X-Men’s School For Gifted Children, of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts… It’s all a little familiar. A little derivative.

I also had a problem with the narrative voice. It is a first person narrative from the point of view of a teenager. And the language just wasn’t right for that voice. Some very long, tortuously clumsy sentences such as

I was following my dad into our suspiciously dark living room as he muttered things like “What a shame we didn’t plan anything for your birthday” and “Oh well, there’s always next year,” when all the lights flooded on to reveal streamers, balloons, and a motley assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins I rarely spoke to – anyone my mother could cajole into attending – and Rick, whom I was surprised to see lingering near the punch bowl, looking comically out of place in a studded leather jacket.

Wow. That’s nearly 100 words. Including an Oxford comma. And a whom.

It is just clumsy and typical of a tendency towards over long sentences and oddly formal language. Riggs just doesn’t seem very good at voices and I wish his editor had picked up the phone and said “Ever thought of the third person?” Here’s another e ample which jarred with me. It’s from the finale after a life-and-death battle

“When we leave here, this loop will close behind us. It’s possible you may never be able to return to the time you came from. At least not easily.”
“There’s nothing for me there,” I said quickly. “Even if I could go back, I’m not sure I’d want to.”

I’m sorry! What? His mum, whom he left in America? His dad, who brought him to the Welsh island in the first place being stranded alone with the horror of having somehow lost his son?

No voice and character are not Riggs’ strength! There was almost nothing to distinguish any of the peculiar children save for their power. And the fact that Jacob hooks up with his grandfather’s ex-girlfriend. As you do.

Don’t even get me started on Miss Peregrine’s interminable info dump exposition about peculiar children, ymbrynes and time loops.

Putting all that to one side, though, the conclusion had promise. Escaping from time loop to time loop allowing for a myriad of different historical and geographical world’s to be explored. Again, it’s nothing shatteringly novel – the anomalies in BBC’s Primeval spring to mind – but promising. This was Riggs’ debut novel and I may be persuaded to delve into the sequel Hollow City. Maybe.

Anyway I shall conclude with a selection of the photographs which litter the book. They are undoubtedly cool even if they lack the power of the illustrations in Ness’ A Monster Calls. I wonder how much of the planning of the story derived from the necessity to shoehorn in these pictures….

2015/01/img_6457.jpg

2015/01/img_6456.png

2015/01/img_6455.jpg

2015/01/img_6458.jpg

2015/01/img_6459.jpg

20130720-141501.jpg

There is only really one word to describe this book.

Perfect.

Absolutely and undoubtedly, a perfect book.

Powerful, moving, honest.

A true book.

A summary of the plot here will not serve to convey its power. Go out and read this book.

In my own small way, however, here goes. The adult narrator returns to his old childhood home for one of his parents’ funeral, visits his neighbour’s farm and recalls his experiences as a seven-year old child. And, as you would expect of Gaiman, those experiences are dark, dangerous and otherworldly. His lodger’s suicide leads him to the Hemstock farm which seems itself to be part of an otherworld or an old world or a pre-reality world. Other remnants of the old world are embedded in the fabric of the farm which find their way through the narrator into the ‘real’ world. The remainder of the book revolves around the Hemstocks’ attempts to banish the remnant back to where it came from.

The Hemstocks – Lettie, her mother Ginnie and old Mrs Hemstock – seem to owe much to (or be a strange hybrid of) both a witches’ coven of maiden, mother and crone and Doctor Who. The sympathy Lettie shows the remnant, the offer to return her home before destroying her, even some of the cadences of her speech all seem to owe a debt to Gaiman’s involvement with Doctor Who. Tasting a coin to determine its age from the layout of its electrons was very Doctor Who!

Having grown up myself as a reader on the Kent-Sussex border to professional parents and having spent most of my weekends on my grandmother’s farm – on which my grandmother also lived in a caravan – the situation that Gaiman creates was very authentic and credible. The taste and texture and smell of milk drawn straight from the cow and of porridge made from it and of early morning milkings leapt from the page. The setting breathed in a way that the more stylised settings of Coraline, The Graveyard Book and Stardust – all brilliant books in their own right – and even The Doctor’s Wife and Nightmare in Silver didn’t.

It was authentic.

And the horror beneath it is all the more horrific because of that authenticity.

And there is horror here. Monsters are there to be banished. Not entirely malign but monstrous and horrific.

The most disturbing elements though, as often with Gaiman, come through the less monstrous and more familiar elements: the housekeeper who wasn’t quite what she seemed and violated the sanctity of the family; the father who tried to drown his son in the bath in possibly the most horrific and chilling scene I have ever read in a book.

These scenes are uncanny – unheimliche – in that the familiar and homely and familial becomes other. In Coraline, the other and the unheimliche was relatively safe behind a door which could be locked. In The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, the child himself becomes the door and it is his own home (his own Heim) that becomes unheimliche. His home – his place of sanctuary, his inviolable domain, his sense of family and of identity – is turned into a prison.

At its heart, in my opinion, this book is about childhood. The terrors of childhood but also its value. And the value of not knowing things and of play. Lettie Hemstock tells us that she

“used to know everything.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Everybody did. I told you. It’s nothing special knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play.”
“To play what?”
“This,” she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars”

That – and the glorious epigraph by the late lamented Maurice Sendak that “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew them. It would scare them” – puts me in mind of a conversation I once had with a fellow teacher about our children both being scared of monsters at night. “I just told them,” said the other teacher, a science teacher, “that there’s no such thing as monsters and they were being silly.” Myself, as an English teacher, I grabbed a plastic sword, leapt under the bed and slashed through the wardrobe to kill the monsters threatening my son!

Anyway, I digress.

This is a fantastic book. Everything is spot on. Everything is authentic. It is horrific, beautiful, mythic and true.

I really cannot praise this gem of a book enough!

20130720-190218.jpg

20130719-162929.jpg

What is it with Neil Gaiman and mothers?

I am in the midst of listening to the wonderful The Ocean at the End of the Lane – personally, I think that this book is going to be a clear favourite from Gaiman who is already one of my favourite authors! – read by Gaiman himself.

Thus far, our narrator (does he have a name? I can’t recall it) has returned to his childhood home for a funeral (whose? His mother’s or father’s?) and has started to recall (and recount) his experiences when he was seven with Lettie Hempstock of Hempstock farm.

In very brief summary, therefore, the narrator’s parents have had to let out his room to, amongst other people, an Opal Miner who ran over a cat and also stole the narrator’s father’s car to commit suicide in.

It appears that something vast, ancient and primal was awakened by the opal miner’s death and decided to make everyone happy by giving them money. So coins are flung at people, forced down their throats in their dreams and money appears mysteriously in wives’ purses when their husbands dream of them prostituting themselves leading to somewhat “difficult” breakfast conversations.

Already echoes of other Gaiman tales reverberate around just that summary: Coraline‘s Other Mother, whose motives for wanting to keep Coraline are as ambiguous as this creature’s; the blurring of the boundaries between dreams, fantasy and reality which parallel Sandman; and the existence of another primal, dangerous and mysterious world beneath or alongside our own is typical Gaiman recalling American Gods, Neverwhere, Stardust and Coraline.

The alternate, old world is – to my taste at least – more successful here than in other books. Whilst I recognise and respond to Gaiman’s own sensitivity to great and iconic liminal imagery of the wall or the door or of Door, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the path seems to be his image of choice. Not the rigid paths that adults follow but the paths which children explore and are signposted with the colours of nature. There is a fantastic paragraph as the narrator is seeking to slip out of the house which starts

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”

But back to the mother.

Our narrator is present when Lettie Hemstock (a timeless eleven year old maiden living with a mother and a crone in what one might call a coven) binds the creature. He is distracted momentarily and becomes infected with a worm. In his foot. And, inadvertently, he brings this worm back home.

After a beautifully visceral description of him trying to extract the worm and how it felt as the worm fought back clinging to the inside of his flesh, he flushes it down the drain. Schoolboy error! The next day, his mother receives a job offer and Ursula Monkton arrives to housekeep. Ursula Monkton whose clothes are the same colours as the flesh of the worm. Ursula Monkton who is idolised by his sister and who seduces his father. Ursula Monkton, his other mother, his surrogate mother, his (potentially) evil step mother.

The parallels thus far with Coraline are fairly clear.

I’ve always felt that Coraline epitomised the negotiations between children and their mothers: the real mother being distracted and distant; the other mother cloyingly possessive. There was a sense of growing up, of maturing, of a child recognising that her mother was a person as well as a mother. The other mother identified herself as nothing other than a mother and becomes horrific as a result.

Freudian interpretation of Coraline could run amok: the needles required to sew buttons into her eyes echo Oedipus’ violation of the mother-child relationship, perhaps Freud’s most iconic condition; the diminution and submission of the other father as symbolic of Coraline’s prime rival for her mother’s attention; the passage between the house and other house becoming increasingly moist and organic as the other mother’s desperation for Coraline grows until it becomes almost a birth canal.

The way I read it – and I am at heart a simple soul – is this: the mother, like all of us real-world parents, is juggling life, a career, a relationship and a child and Coraline misses the primal bond between mother and daughter. When I adopted my children, I was encouraged to read a book entitled The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier. It is an exploration of the effect of the separation of mother and child in the adoption process, even in babies removed from the mother immediately on birth. There are echoes of that in Coraline: the daughter has realised that she is not the only thing in her mother’s life and that hurts.

When offered a form of that bond from the other mother she is, naturally, tempted but wise enough to see that to give in would be to surrender her identity as an individual and to become nothing more than an object, a part of another rather than her own person. She learns through the book to accept her mother as the distracted and divided person she is because that allows Coraline herself the space to grow.

Having just become a father, I can remember that at some point our mind set shifted from my wife being pregnant to my wife carrying our baby. At some point our baby came to be viewed as separate from, albeit contained within, my wife.

For a detailed exploration of the Freudian in Coraline, An Eye For an I is a good read!

And, yes, I do read things like this online! For fun!

I’m not sure yet how the surrogate mother will develop in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Nor how significant the different gender of the narrator will become. She’s certainly predatory. And the scene where she manipulates the father into nearly drowning his son in the bath was horrifying at a very different level to Coraline‘s gothic horror.

There is one very powerful word that I just came across in The Ocean at the End of the Lane: inviolable.

“My parents were a unit, inviolable. The future had suddenly become unknowable: anything could happen: the train of my life had jumped the rails and headed off across the fields”

Ursula Monkton violated the inviolable, his parents’ relationship. Actually, that’s wrong. Through Ursula Monkton, the father had violated the inviolable:

“I thought of my father, his arms around the housekeeper-who-wasn’t, kissing her neck…. I was scared by what it meant that my father was kissing the neck of Ursula Monkton, that his hands had lifted her midi skirt above her waist.” (my emphasis)

Is the sexual infidelity – the violation of the inviolable – a similarly cathartic experience to that which Coraline went through? Is the breaking of the family unit echoed in the breaking up of the family land and home?

Will the mother charge back to rescue her family?

And, whilst we’re on fathers, what is it with Gaiman and fathers who can’t cook? Coraline’s father concocts things from recipes rather than tins; the father here buys thick wholemeal bread and burns it when making toast.

Listening to this as an audiobook on the way to school, my stepson looked at me and smirked when that was read out!

20130719-162259.jpg