Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Dave McKean
Release date: September 30, 2008
Genres: Children’s literature; fantasy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” A mysterious man has murdered the toddler’s mother, father, and sister, and now the man mounts the narrow stairs, up to the nursery-attic, to finish the most important job of his existence.
But the baby is gone.
The curious tot finds himself in the nearby cemetery, under the protection of the shadowy Owenses and Silas, an even taller, darker, and more mysterious stranger than the first. Mr. and Mrs. Owens, who in life were childless, fight to keep the baby after his newly deceased parents appear and plead with them to keep him safe.
The boy’s story is certainly a strange one. First of all, there’s his home, the graveyard. He is given free rein in the graveyard to explore as he wishes. The names and epitaphs engraved on headstones make for an odd topography of childhood, but the ghosts the graves contain are the child’s only friends for much of his childhood.
Then there’s his name, Nobody (Bod for short); when the other ghosts in the graveyard bicker over his resemblance to past acquaintances, Mrs. Owens insists that “he looks like nobody but himself.” Silas agrees, and Nobody is his name.
Which brings me to Silas. Silas is an unexpected guardian, to say the least. Like Bod, he also has full access to the graveyard, but unlike his young charge he only comes out at night and he does not dwell among the ghosts for long, swooping off into the night like a bat.
Each chapter is a story that could stand on its own, but in the end, everything Bod has learned in his unusual life comes in handy. He meets the Indigo Man and the Sleer in their ancient barrow, and he travels through a gate to the home of the ghouls, Ghûlheim. He befriends a witch on the outskirts of the graveyard, and he learns about the forgotten ritual between the living and the dead, the danse macabre. He attends a school outside the graveyard when his ghostly tutors falter in their knowledge, and, perhaps the scariest part of all, he meets a young girl whose curiosity mirrors his own.
Neil Gaiman is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever encountered.
From the very beginning, The Graveyard Book is an irresistible story. Gaiman carefully balances the intrigue of a triple murder with the fresh innocence of a child like any other, learning about the world with wide eyes and a million questions.
Gaiman’s prose is lyrical without being flowery. His seemingly effortless prose captures Bod’s sense of foreboding as he nears the ghouls’ despised home:
Even from the path below Ghûlheim, even from miles away, Bod could see that all of the angles were wrong—that the walls sloped crazily, that it was every nightmare that he had ever endured made into a place, like a huge mouth of jutting teeth. It was a city that had been built just to be abandoned, in which all the fears and madnesses and revulsions of the creatures who built it were made into stone. The ghoul-folk had found it and delighted in it and called it home.
To see such serious talent beside a thoroughly engaging storyline is rare and refreshing for any book, much less a children’s book.
Any book about life, death, and life after death is bound to bump into deep questions. But Gaiman handles these issues gracefully. When Silas explains the idea of suicide to young Bod, he focuses not upon the act itself, but the reasons behind it—the search for happiness and self that suicides search for. Bod asks:
“Are they happier dead?”
“Sometimes. Mostly no. It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”
Silas also has a way of turning murder and death into a reason for living in words that avoid sounding trite or overworked.
Silas said, “Out there, the man who killed your family is, I believe, still looking for you, still intends to kill you.”
Bod shrugged. “So?” he said. “It’s only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead.”
“Yes.” Silas hesitated. “They are. And they are, for the most part, done with the world. But you’re not. You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change.”
The Graveyard Book was truly a delight to read, and I appreciated Gaiman’s intelligent handling of complex issues without losing sight of his inventive narrative. I would recommend this book to almost anyone for its fully formed characters, excellent prose, and engaging plot.