The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Reviewed by Chris A. Bolton
Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book finds its inspiration in Rudyard Kipling's classic The Jungle Book. Both are novels told in short stories, about a young orphan who is adopted into a strange world and learns to adapt even as danger lurks nearby. But the similarities end right about there.
The Graveyard Book begins with a chapter that is guaranteed to induce nightmares in younger readers (and, quite probably, their parents). A sadistic killer known only as "Jack" systematically murders a family — all except for the youngest, a baby who manages to wander into a nearby graveyard. (The killings happen off-screen, as it were.) The ghosts who inhabit the cemetery take the boy in, under the tutelage of Silas, who is neither quite alive nor quite dead (one of the book's pleasures is gradually assembling the hints as to what Silas really is). Called Nobody Owens, or "Bod" for short, the boy comes of age in these stories, which show the very unique ways a child develops when he's been raised by the dead.
Eventually, the darkness of the real world creeps through the cemetery's gates and Bod finds himself forced to face his family's murderer on his own.
The Graveyard Book is one of Gaiman's best novels. With some notable exceptions, like Stardust and Anansi Boys, I prefer Gaiman's comic book writing (i.e. the Sandman series) to his prose, but this book is a joy to read. The scenes and characters spring vividly to life in a way that helped mark Gaiman's reputation as a comic writer but doesn't always happen in his prose. Don't be surprised to find yourself wishing you could trade places with Bod and grow up in a cemetery, yourself.
While I enjoyed Coraline, his first young adult novel, I found the titular character a bit bland in places. Bod, however, is a fully developed character from beginning to end, eclipsed only by the colorful inhabitants of the graveyard, who have maintained the look, manners, and speech of the time period in which they died. (It helps that Gaiman has set the book in the U.K., so that the cemetery's history reaches back several hundred, even a couple of thousand years, rather than just a couple of hundred.) Capably abetted by macabre illustrations from longtime collaborator Dave McKean, Gaiman sweeps the reader into a fast-paced, wide-ranging tale that will entrance fans of Roald Dahl, J. K. Rowling, Ray Bradbury, Kipling himself, and, of course, Gaiman and McKean.
If I have any regrets, it's that Gaiman has never met a dramatic cliche he wasn't afraid to embrace. (Spoiler Alert!) In American Gods it was the sheriff who happens to be standing in the hallway while the killer unwittingly confesses his crimes. In The Graveyard Book he uses the hoary device of the killer holding the female love interest at knifepoint while the hero actually says something dangerously close to, "Let her go — this is between us!" In such an imaginative and spellbinding story up to that point, I wished he'd come up with something more daring and unique. (Returning to Spoiler-free Zone.)
Quibbles aside, this is a highly enjoyable novel full of great characters and a deliciously macabre atmosphere. As Bod grows and his departure of the graveyard becomes inevitable, it turns out to be surprisingly affecting.
(Read the Powells.com interview with Neil Gaiman.)