Monday, March 29, 2010

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKean

Never let it be said that I can’t honor a deadline. Pajiba officially announced this month’s Book Club selection around a week ago, leaving not a lot of time for readers to have completed it for the March 30 discussion. However, being game for most literary challenges, I made sure to check out the novel from the library and finished it within 24 hours. With a pace like this, I’m just about caught up on my book count for the overall Cannonball Read.

Now then, official notations aside, did I like the book? Yes. As scandalous as it might seem to some, the only Neil Gaiman I’d read prior to this novel were some of his short stories. Anansi Boys is on my shelf, but I’ve yet to pick it up. Despite this relative unfamiliarity, I went into The Graveyard Book knowing to expect smart, supernatural writing.

Nobody Owens, “Bod” for short, lives in a graveyard. Since he was a toddler, he’s been raised by the ghosts and other beings who reside there, including the neither-living-nor-dead guardian named Silas. Though he does not remember his birth family, he is discouraged from leaving the graveyard. If he leaves, the mysterious man who killed his family will be able to find him, and the graveyard will not be able to offer its protection.

Silas does not so much act as a father figure in the traditional sense, though he’s not quite a mentor either. Since he is able to leave the graveyard, he can provide Bod with food and clothing, but he is not warm like Bod’s ghost-parents, Mr. and Mrs. Owens. Silas remains matter-of-fact, prodding the boy to learn all he can from the graveyard inhabitants, as well as answering some of Bod’s questions himself. When Bod asks about the unconsecrated grounds at the end of the graveyard, Silas says:

“[T]here are people who find their lives have become so unsupportable they believe the best thing they could do would be to hasten their transition to another plane of existence.”

“They kill themselves, you mean?” said Bod. He was about eight years old, wide-eyed and inquisitive, and he was not stupid.


“Does it work? 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.”

And therein lies the theme of the book — Your life is what you put into it After you die, you will no longer change; the chance to do so has gone. This idea stays with Bod as he grows older and his time in the graveyard is coming to a close.

Even without Gaiman saying so in the acknowledgments, the story has obvious parallels to The Jungle Book. Having not read the books and only seen the Disney movie, I am sure I missed many of the references, but this felt like a great retelling nonetheless.

In the library, The Graveyard Book sits in the children’s section, and I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s a fine example of fiction that is not dumbed down for its readers. It doesn’t use superfluous slang, doesn’t take great pains to feel “modern,” but rather does what all good fiction should do — remain timeless, regardless of the period in which it is set. The writing is excellent and compelling, even to a reader who does not spend a lot of time within the macabre. It’s the sort of book you would want to hand to your nine or ten-year-old and say, “Please, start here.” Younger readers should be so lucky to have a literary foundation as fascinating as Neil Gaiman.

Book #21/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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