The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Ignore the YA label slapped on this one if that gives you pause. Though that won’t be hard to do because The Graveyard Book opens with a hand in the darkness holding a knife wet with the blood of almost an entire family: father, mother, and older child. The knife lacks only the blood of the toddler son to finish its job. Luckily for the reader (and the boy) he escapes into a nearby cemetery where a mothering ghost convinces the cemetery community to protect him. Another reason to ignore the YA label, or better yet, to revel in it, is that Neil Gaiman’s YA-listed material is stronger than his adult work: tighter, more focused, more intense all around. All that holds true here and The Graveyard Book’s clarity and brevity, often seen as constraints in the category, only enhance the book’s impact.
Chapter One sets the premise, introduces the boy (Nobody), the murderer (Jack), Mrs. and Mr. Owens (Nobody’s new parents), Silas (a non-ghost resident of the graveyard who becomes Nobody’s guardian), and several of the 300 other ghosts. Chapter Two introduces a young girl (living) named Scarlett who becomes Nobody’s playmate for a while (her parents think he’s an imaginary friend) and Chapter 3 finds Bod (his nickname) meeting a tutor/guardian named Miss Lupescu whom Silas arranges for when he can’t be around. Both Scarlett and Miss Lupescu will play major roles.
This sets the pattern for the book as whole, which is episodic in nature: we get a discrete chapter, an adventure in the cemetery (Bod is forbidden from leaving for fear that someone still wants him dead) where Bod meets a new ghostly denizen, some resolution to whatever issue forms the crux of the chapter, then we jump ahead a few years for the next chapter.
The story is compelling and scary and tense at the start, mellows and becomes charmingly, winsomely captivating as Bod grows up, then turns tensely compelling once again as Bod decides to face his family’s murderer, who is creepy enough but has behind him some chilling characters. While some may feel the episodic structure and change in tone/mood detracts somewhat, I’d say the loss of intense plot momentum is more than compensated for by the sheer delight of those middle chapters, thanks to their sharp, efficient characterization; the way they subtly nudge Bod closer to adulthood, and the way his relationships with a few of the cemetery residents deepen over time.
The dead in Neil Gaiman’s book are more alive than many a living character I’ve read.
Bod’s progress toward maturity is not smooth and relentless — he makes more than his share of mistakes, flashes lots of immaturity, brings inadvertent harm to those who love him. In short, he’s as real a child as one could ask for. But, like all children he eventually will have to leave the nest and face his own troubles. This is part of the book’s brutal honesty (consider the line “death is the great democracy” and ask yourself whether most authors would be so blunt with children) and thus its movement is inevitably bittersweet, made more so by the losses Bod (and the reader) suffers.
The Graveyard Book is a gem: small, precise, beautiful, a bit otherworldly, reflective, and like some gems, sharp enough to cut yourself on in places. Highly recommended.
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
With those words, Neil Gaiman plunges the reader into a shadowy tale. The Graveyard Book opens with Jack, a member of a secret association that has been tasked with killing the entire Owens family, stalking through the Owens house, knife in hand, seeking the last member of the family. But Nobody Owens, a toddler, has a fondness for climbing out of his crib and going exploring. On this night, his midnight ramble takes him to the cemetery up the street, and a ghostly couple takes custody of him, along with Silas, a mysterious figure who lives in the crypt. Silas is just one of many interesting characters that either live in, or are part of, the family Nobody creates for himself in the graveyard.
The Graveyard Book is strongest when it focuses on the fight between Nobody and Jack. That translates into a very strong beginning and ending, but the story stumbles in the middle. Neil Gaiman has said that his inspiration for this novel was Kipling’s The Jungle Book, but set in a graveyard. This structure of a series of connected vignettes hobbles the narrative flow of the story. While the chapters are mostly interesting in and of themselves, it seems to keep the tension from building throughout the novel, with each chapter having an internal story arc, rather than contributing to a greater narrative flow. While Gaiman does incorporate events from each of these chapters into the climax, making them all necessary to the narrative as a whole, it makes the book read more as a short story collection than a novel. That said, the chapter Danse Macabre would make for an amazing short story by itself. It was one of the most gripping, otherworldly episodes I have ever read.
The Graveyard Book is ostensibly a children’s book, but it is one that a parent or guardian should supervise. Any book that begins with a family being stabbed to death in their home is one that stretches the boundaries of standard children’s literature. I would recommend this for older children as a chapter book with their parents’ supervision, or older readers who enjoy an interesting take on the orphan coming of age fantasy trope.
Neil Gaiman’s 2008 novel The Graveyard Book really racked up the awards, winning the British Carnegie Medal and American Newbery Medal for the best children’s book of the year, and then more surprisingly the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Novel and Locus Award for Best YA Book. For years I have heard Gaiman’s name for various books like Stardust (which was a great film), Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and American Gods (2002 winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, BSFA, World Fantasy, British Fantasy awards), not to mention the legendary Sandman series of graphic novels. I first read it in hardcopy, but it was when I listened to the full-cast production that the magic of story really came to life. Voice actors include Neil Gaiman, Derek Jacobi, Robert Madge, Clare Corbett, Miriam Margolyes, Andrew Scott, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Emilia Fox, Reece Shearsmith, and Lenny Henry. This is definitely one of the best audiobook productions I’ve ever encountered. It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking it. I listened to the entire book during a hike in the mountains.
The story itself is simple. It begins with a sinister man named Jack who enters a London home at night and proceeds to quietly kill every member of the family there, except for a toddler who miraculously manages to escape on his own and wander into the old graveyard on the hill. Though Jack gives pursuit, the ghosts of the graveyard choose, after a hurried debate, to provide aid to the young live boy and successfully hide him from the sinister Jack.
The middle portion is a coming of age tale of Nobody “Bod” Owens, who is raised by the dead folk of the graveyard, and protected by Silas, a mysterious figure who is neither dead nor alive, but is certainly not to be trifled with. Gaiman introduces Bod to a myriad of deceased folk from many different eras of England, many of whom feel protective of Bod as he grows up among them. However, because the killer Jack is still seeking to track down the missing boy, Bod is under strict instructions not to venture outside the graveyard. He develops skills such as Fading, instilling Fear, seeing in the dark, and being able to slip through places that the living normally cannot.
Of course there is the struggle of Bod to reconcile his solitary life among the dead with the urge to explore and be part of the larger world of the living that exists outside the graveyard’s gates. But his one brief foray outside almost results in him being captured by Jack, so he quickly retreats back to the safety of his graveyard home. Later he encounters several supernatural creatures in the graveyard that will eventually help him in his struggle to survive an attack by Jack and his associates, and the ending is surprisingly exciting.
On reflection, the story is as much about parenting and raising a child, no matter what the circumstances, as it is a story of growing up. As a parent of a young teen, I certainly could empathize with the feelings of the graveyard denizens as they watched Bod grow up from an innocent child to a strangely calm and sheltered boy. It was an interesting spin on parenting, and the individual deceased have interesting life stories, and it makes their day to have an audience.
I also thought that Bod’s secluded life with the dead and avoiding the living was a clever metaphor for shy kids who feel more comfortable with books and adults than kids their own age. He is always more comfortable on his own listening to stories of the past – other kids are scary. I can sympathize with that sentiment. So it’s very heartening to see Bod growing up and engaging the world of the living. It’s a good message to be reminded not to let the world pass by just observing it from the shadows.
The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody Owens, a mortal child who is being raised by ghosts. It is a compelling tale inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book but with a much larger dose of the fantastic, and fewer monkeys.
We already have some great reviews of The Graveyard Book from Ruth, Stuart, and Bill who all cover very well the strengths and weaknesses of the story as a whole from their points of view. Since I’m late to the party I will talk about where the retelling made me see the story differently, and more pointedly the things I liked better in The Graveyard Book than I did in The Jungle Book as far as things are comparable. I wanted to look at it this way because:
- As much as I love the original story, some things about this related work made me love it differently and I think that’s an interesting spot to be in.
- I love characters, so I especially loved digging into the familiarity of the characters of The Graveyard Book and finding striking and delightful differences from The Jungle Book.
It takes a village/pack of wolves/cemetery of dead people to raise a child. One of my favourite elements of The Graveyard Book is how Gaiman brought to life this family dynamic. Gaiman tends to take more time with the residents of the graveyard, to the strength of the story. I think these denizens of a place so deeply encased in the rituals of the dead lend a lightness to what could otherwise be a soul-sucking setting. Instead of a morose place to grow up, Nobody is surrounded by interesting and dynamic entities who, in caring about his well-being, serve as a delightful group of characters.
The translation of Sher Khan into the sinister organization of killers is perhaps my favourite difference between the two stories. The Jacks are terrifying to Nobody, and intimidating to his home and family. The mystery around their motivations, origins, and fixation on the child lend additional layers of fear for the people of the graveyard. I enjoyed the dynamic here and the many echoes to the tiger-like qualities of the Jack who has been hunting Nobody his whole life.
In both stories, but perhaps more powerfully in The Graveyard Book, Nobody Owens/Mowgli is a spirit of childhood and curiosity for the setting and family he collects. Nobody brings some — quite literal — life to the graveyard and is deeply loved by the group as one of their own. Nobody is an engaging protagonist. I found it easy to get swept up in his feelings, from his very young days in the graveyard and learning from his mentor, right up to his inevitable departure from his childhood home. Gaiman makes it easy to have emotional empathy for Nobody, even if we know more or less where the story is going to go.
The Graveyard Book is equal parts engaging and delightful in its retelling of the classic story of The Jungle Book.
Umm… did you like The Jungle Book when you were a kid?
Never read Kipling’s Jungle Book or saw the Disney movie. Problem was I was raised by wolves so I missed out on a lot of essential reading as a child :-)
What? I thought wolves were big library users! :)
Seriously, though, even with books like Stardust, and for part of the time, Anansi Boys, I have had the same experience of a lack of… I won’t say a lack of tension. Sometimes Neil Gaiman’s narrative voice so smooth and so friendly that it just gives me the impression that nothing really bad can happen… even while really bad things are happening. Strangely, I never had that feeling while I was reading American Gods.
I bet the site would like a review of The Jungle Book.