The Graveyard Book
HarperFestival, 2008 (audiobook edition)
A children’s book for adults? An adult book for children? A children’s book with some mature themes? It is difficult to describe precisely where Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book falls with regards to audience. Truth is it is one of those rare volumes that defies any one particular label. It is one of those books I feel like parent and child should experience together. The Graveyard Book is a bildungsroman very much in the tradition of Dickens. The young boy whose family is murdered is adopted by the ghosts of a nearby graveyard, christened Nobody Owens (or Bod to his friends), and raised by this strange new family. Nobody is looked after by someone who may or may not be a vampire, taught by a werewolf (or Hound of God), and even dance with the Pale Lady herself.
The novel is in many ways an extended metaphor childhood. There is an innocence to Bod’s interactions with the world, his complete and utter trust in his fantasy is eroded slowly as he slowly realizes that he is different than they are. For the majority of the novel Bod exists in this sort of nether region between the living and the dead. A place where magic is real and the horrors and sharp definitions of the adult world are distant mysteries. It is a world built of the imagination, of constant play, that to my mind at least reflects the inner life of a child. It is also something of an incomplete life and as Bod’s interactions with the living world increases over time the inconsistencies and short falls of his graveyard existence become ever more apparent. There is an air of lament throughout the whole story, particularly as an adult reading the story, knowing that Nobody’s world will inevitably end; that he will move on. The Graveyard Book is an elegy for childhood.
There is a certain sadness to the novel’s ending. A curious and bittersweet blending of hope and despair. It is both a beginning and an ending; it is curiously perfect as such. I don’t need to know what happens next. Of course being a cynic in nature my outlook for Bod at the novel’s end isn’t very hopeful. However, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The ambiguity of the novel’s conclusion lets the expectations and imagination of the reader extrapolate further adventures. It is a launch pad for the imagination and I can’t really think of a better way to end a novel like this.
While novel mostly stays focused on Bod and his experience Gaiman also manages to hint at the larger world beyond the graveyard. Bod’s tutor Ms. Lupescu and Silas seem to be part of some larger organization while the Man Jack, who killed Bod’s family, is a member of a sinister if shadow organization (made entirely of Jacks). Then there is the netherworld of the Ghouls and their dark city Ghulheim or the mystery of the barrow beneath the graveyard and its hidden and strange occupant. There are layers to Bod’s world that are only briefly explored an internal consistency and level of detail that belies the deceptive simplicity of the tale’s overall structure.
I actually listened to the audiobook version of The Graveyard Book. It is read by Neil Gaiman and, if he ever decides he has had enough with writing he has a passable fall back career as a narrator. He may be the author but as he narrates you almost feel that he is as in the dark about what comes next as you are. There is a certain joyful, almost smirking, quality to his reading that really adds something special to the novel. It is a wonderful rendition of the tale and I recommend it to anyone who wants to give The Graveyard Book a shot.