Liberally sprinkled with the master storyteller’s inimitable blend of humor and horror, this coming of age story with a twist will stay with you long after the final page has turned.
One night, a sinister figure murders a family, with the exception of the fourth and final member, a baby boy. The child manages to elude his would-be killer, and is unusually granted refuge in the nearby graveyard. His ghostly adoptive parents dub him Nobody Owens, Bod for short, an inconspicuous name they hope will keep him safe from the man who still wishes him dead. While the murderer lurks in the background, waiting to finish his ghastly task, Bod attends to the serious business of growing up, encountering adventures and friends along the way.
A child raised in a strange environment is a concept we have encountered many times – Gaiman confirms his debt to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in the acknowledgements. Yet he makes this rendition all his own, subverting traditional elements with extraordinary details, and including the trademarks fans have come to expect: an unassuming protagonist; a quirky but truly threatening villain; a weird world that borders reality; and lashings of mystery, horror, fantasy and comedy.
Gaiman’s prose is typically poetic yet precise, with even the fancier words comprehensible through context. His distinctive voice compels the reader to flip each page. Although the novel’s opening is a master class in horror – “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife” – nothing is graphically described, but the absence of specifics allows the imagination to run wild. The text is littered with insights (the feeling of making a new friend, losing a father) that ground the supernatural tale in reality, making the fantastic feel familiar.
The graveyard, an overgrown historical site that is now a nature reserve, is at once Bod’s home, playground, school and sanctuary. Gaiman fully exploits the setting’s potential, filling the imaginary space to the brim with admirable invention and memorable inhabitants. Bod learns his alphabet from tombs and headstones, and history firsthand from graveyard residents that span the centuries. There, the lad witnesses marvelous sights, such as the mysterious danse macabre and the stately Lady on the Grey. This land of death is sometimes very scary, but most of the time, it feels safer than the unknown world beyond its gates, which contains menaces both mundane and mystical.
Bod is a winning creation, simultaneously likable and creepy. He’s kind, curious and brave, and never hesitates to set right what he sees as wrong – a friend without a headstone, bullies who extort pocket money from smaller children – but his methods are sometimes ruthless. Thanks to his graveyard lessons, he can instill fear into his foes’ hearts and direct their dreams into nightmares. His development throughout the book is palpable, and when the tale ends, it feels there’s more ahead for our hero.
The motley, mostly dead, folk who populate the graveyard ring with a cacophony of unique voices. With rhythmic dialogue and neat turns of phrase, Gaiman breathes life into an array of characters, from an 11th century witch (“Never stole nuffink, not even a handkerchief”) to a gruff Eastern European historian (“A nickname. I do not approve. I will call you *boy'”).
Mr. and Mrs. Owens, dead for 300 years, are warm and firm parents, despite their insubstantial forms. Bod’s beloved guardian Silas, who is neither dead nor alive (it’s never stated explicitly, but you should be able to guess exactly what he is), is enigmatic and fearsome, and destined to become a literary favorite. Scarlett, Bod’s only living friend, is as bright, confident and as vivacious as her name would suggest.
The villains include the murderer, Jack; a mercenary pawn shop owner; monkey-like ghouls, with strangely grand names – the 33rd President of the United States, the Bishop of Bath and Wells – and adolescent bullies. These grim characters both tickle the funny bones and incite shivers, in varying doses, to excellent effect. In the best tradition of children’s storytelling, Gaiman never shies away from the horrible, understanding that young minds can handle being scared, and often thrill in it. He knows that the real world is much more intimidating than anything even the finest writer can conjure between the pages of a book – and his judicious use of reality successfully increases the scares.
Aside from the obvious tribute to Kipling, Gaiman’s tale is rich with pastiche and allusion, revealing surprises upon each reread. Robinson Crusoe and Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat appear as Bod’s reading material, to name a few literary cameos. A sequence in which several characters seek to protect Bod would not be out of place in a comic book, as does Bod’s dream-walking excursions, calling attention to Gaiman’s graphic novel roots, without distracting.
As an added bonus, the Harper Collins edition of the text is illustrated by Gaiman’s longtime collaborator Dave McKean. His watery black-and-white etchings echo Gaiman’s descriptions, clarifying the images you are likely to have already conjured.
Dark, wonderful and astute, The Graveyard Book definitely wins a place on the shelves next to the great classics of children’s literature. It’s the kind of story that your children will read again when they’re older and want to share with their own children.
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The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Bloomsbury/Harper Collins, 320 pp.