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Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is an author who needs no introduction. From his graphic novel work with Sandman to his screenplays, from his amazing American Gods to his also-amazing but perhaps less-known-about (by American audiences) Neverwhere, Gaiman is known throughout the spec-fic world as a prolific author and a pretty nice guy to meet.

I was going to say something like “but not everyone knows Gaiman’s work as a children’s and young-adult author”, but that wouldn’t be accurate. So instead I’ll cut this intro short and just tell you I’m reviewing Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

For a book with such an ominous title, The Graveyard Book really isn’t. It starts with a triple-murder, which isn’t really standard kids’-book fare, but it’s not so uncommon for a YA novel these days — I mean, have you read some of the stuff that’s being published? Anyway, as I said, a man named Jack kills three members of a family of four. The fourth escapes — he’s a toddler whose name we don’t learn right off — and said toddler happens past a graveyard. A very special graveyard. A graveyard which is also a nature preserve, so it’s never going to be turned into flats or shopping centers. The toddler is found by the ghosts in the graveyard, and manages to get himself adopted by a dead couple, Mr. and Mrs. Owens. They name him Nobody, because nobody knows his name.

Nobody — or Bod, as he’s called for short — grows up in the graveyard. He learns his letters; he learns how to behave; he learns how to take on the powers of the ghosts in the graveyard. But as a living boy, he faces different challenges than the ghosts — for one thing, he actually ages while no one else does — and he’s the only one who eats. Fortunately, Bod’s guardian, Silas, is alive (or, at least, alive enough) to ensure that Bod has food and the other necessities of a living person* are taken care of.

The novel is really more a series of stories chronicling Bod’s upbringing, from childhood to his school days and then into his teenage years. In that way, it’s very much a coming-of-age novel: Bod sees a problem, he wants to solve it, he attempts to do so in his own strange way (strange to everyone else, because he is from a graveyard, but normal to him). Throughout, though, Bod is warned not to leave the graveyard because the man Jack is out to finish the job he started — that is, to kill Bod.

The thing about that, though, is that you can’t tell a young boy to stay in a graveyard forever.

As per usual with Gaiman’s writing, The Graveyard Book is full of rich scenery, strong characterization, and mysteries that are sometimes not fully explained. The villains are in the standard Gaiman “serious villain” vein — similar to the new gods in American Gods — and, while ominous, are just “stupid” enough to be beatable by a teenage boy who was raised in a graveyard.

If the book has a flaw, then in my opinion it’s that it focuses too exclusively on Bod and that forces the story to be that much narrower. There’s one chapter that shows us the world Jack comes from (think the serial killer convention in The Doll’s House), but otherwise we’re only given a Bod’s-eye-view of things. Not that that’s a bad view — as with most literary protagonists, Bod is quite observant and the narration helps a lot — but I really want to know more about a world of graveyards with living ghosts and people like Silas. (I’d tell you more about him, but it would be a spoiler.)

Oh, and, lest I forget — frequent Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean illustrated the book. I’m not much of an art critic, but the drawings were nice, appropriate, and not too pervasive (that is, they weren’t there for art’s sake — there was a reason for each one). I personally didn’t need the drawings to enjoy the book, but I’m sure there are folks who will get more of a benefit out of the art than I did.

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Neil Gaiman, and that’s a shame — he is one of the greatest working writers of our time, either in spec-fic or out of it. Whenever I read one of his books, I’m reminded just how good he is. If you haven’t read The Graveyard Book, now would be an excellent time to pick it up and take a look. You won’t be disappointed.

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Note to Parents: This novel contains violence, murder, death, and one scene of corporal punishment. If it was a film, it would probably be rated PG — it’s not extremely graphic, except for the opening scene, and even that isn’t that bad. I think most teens can handle the material in the novel. Of course, you should use your own best judgment when it comes to your children.

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* One wonders if they put a toilet into the tomb where Bod lives, or if he trudges to the funeral chapel to use theirs.

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