The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book
Also "CILIP Carnegie Medal WINNER 2010" according to my copy

I’d love to be a writer in England. It sounds as if they’re all amazingly talented, get together regularly, hang and do stuff, and get all sorts of opportunities to work in movies, TV, radio, and so on. Nick Hornby (About a Boy, etc.) and Ben Elton (Chart Throb, Dead Famous, etc.) are both multitalented and well respected; Audrey Niffenegger regularly pops over there and runs graveyard tours at Highgate Cemetary; and Susanna Clarke (of Strange & Norrell) went to a writer’s course where the facilitator thought her work was awesome, and therefore just introduced her to Neil Gaiman (which would be kinda like writing a cool program in computing class, and being introduced to Bill Gates).

Neil Gaiman is one of those people whose name seems to come up a lot. I’ve reviewed him before here on GeekReads, albeit indirectly via the movie adaptation of his story Coraline, and he’ll almost certainly make another appearance in future since Jenny gave me the first volume of the Absolute Sandman series for Christmas. It’s a beast of a thing, so don’t expect it any time soon…

Obviously, the existence of this review indicates that I have actually finished reading something of his, and that is The Graveyard Book, a deceptively simple but extremely imaginative little novel. Because of the timing, it’d be easy to accuse Gaiman of jumping onto the whole occult bandwagon what with the soaring popularity of books dealing with witchcraft and wizardry, and other mythical creatures that – shall we say – suck. You wouldn’t last two pages before that prejudice is completely dispelled. Gaiman’s writing disarms you with a one-two punch of wistfulness and charm before delivering a fatal blow to any remaining doubt with its sheer inventiveness.

Nobody Owens is a boy whose family was murdered while he was still a baby. Brought up by the residents of the graveyard where he had crawled to, “Bod” for short, is the quintessential outsider – the loner who’s different to everybody else, who has trouble fitting in. His nemesis is “the man Jack”, who was responsible for the killings and considers the boy to be a loose end that needs tying up, and it’s only by learning the lessons from the dead that Bod hopes to defeat his enemy.

You wouldn’t pick it for a childrens’ book, but despite leaning very heavily on the macabre Gaiman never lets the story get gross or grisly. This is the kind of story kids would have read prior to Disney turning everything cute and cuddly, and before political correctness whitewashed everything out of fear that something might offend somebody. At the same time, it’s not “dark” in the same sense as Harry Potter’s most recent outings – it manages to retain that sense of child-like innocence from start to finish compared to the latter Rowling books, which reek of adult weariness and cynicism.

Graveyard isn’t perfect – the chapters are a little too episodic and the writing has a certain mechanical feel about it: insert a clue here, refer back to it there, etc. but that’s like complaining that Bach’s Preludes and Fugues are too mathematical, or dismissing Mozart because Eine Kleine wasn’t exactly his finest moment. But like those pieces, the story of Nobody Owens will delight and entertain for a very long time to come.

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