The Graveyard Book

Thursday October 16, 2008 in books read 2008 | neil gaiman

Neil Gaiman is my favourite writer of short stories. His novels are great too, but there’s just something spellbinding about his shorter pieces. The collection Fragile Things was possibly the best book I read last year and certainly one of the best and most memorable books of ghost stories I’ve ever read. The Graveyard Book is his latest work of fiction, and although aimed at a younger readership it still bears Gaiman’s refreshing flair as a gifted writer of supernatural tales.

The Graveyard Book is about a lost child raised by ghosts in an old graveyard, now fallen into overgrown disuse. It’s a simple idea, and its possibly been used before, but only a writer of Gaiman’s class can use it so well. He lets his imagination run with the concept, both through the eyes of the child in question, Nobody Owens (Bod), and through inviting his reader to become immersed in the story. The setting he creates is wonderful, the collapsed and crumbling headstones, the old crypt, the unconsecrated ground, and the ghosts themselves who range from the comic to the creepy. Most of all Gaiman has a wonderful way with words: at one point Bod pauses in conversation to run his fingers over a moss-covered grave, so simply and in so few words reminding the reader they are in the midst of an incredible ghost story.

I’ve mentioned my love for Gaiman’s short stories, and the best parts of The Graveyard Book read like self-contained tales in their own right. Typically for Gaiman, he reveals some of the craft that went into this book in the closing acknowledgments, explaining that he started with the fourth chapter and then later constructed the rest of the book around it. This, The Witch’s Headstone, is a brilliant passage, where Bod encounters and befriends the ghost of a medieval witch. Similarly, another chapter stands out in its own right where Bod plays with a young girl who perceives him as an imaginary friend, only to be found amongst the graves, a friend who’ll fade with memory. Like Gaiman’s best work, it is very touching.

I loved this book throughout, although at times it does feel that Gaiman has strained to wrap a plot around his wonderful prose. I can understand this, as a book aimed at younger readers must appear to be going somewhere, and I may be cynical when I draw comparisons with Harry Potter. But they are there. The child in danger after his parents are murdered, the protection of magic and secrecy, the Dumbledore role as personified by Bod’s guardian Silas. Like Harry, Bod is perceived as a misfit in the “real world”, and like Rowling, Gaiman has a clever line in humour when he portrays those in the magical world who choose to teach and steer our hero.

However, Gaiman has an advantage over J.K. Rowling in that his other fiction is far more varied. Whilst she is yet to branch out from Hogwarts, Gaiman can point his newer readers in the direction of his darker fiction. Passages in The Graveyard Book, in particular Bod’s encounter with the deadly ghouls, recalls the dark and crazy humour of Anansi Boys and American Gods. Most of the readers of The Graveyard Book aren’t quite ready for this very adult stuff, but Gaiman can do that rather wonderful thing in children’s fiction – suggest that there are very broad, challenging and exciting horizons for the reader yet to come.

I just purchased this to read aloud to my kids – we LOVED Coraline. I also enjoyed Neverwhere and Anansi Boys this year.

Carrie K.    Sunday October 19, 2008   

I’m going to read Neverwhere next.

The Book Tower    Monday October 20, 2008   

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