It takes a graveyard to raise a child. Nobody Owens, known as Bod, is an ordinary boy. He would be entirely normal if he didn’t live in a cemetery, being raised by ghosts, with a guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor the dead. There are adventures in the graveyard for a boy—an ancient Indigo Man, a gateway to the abandoned city of ghouls, the strange and terrible Sleer. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, he will be in danger from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family.
In his compositions, Neil Gaiman blurs the lines of genre between fantasy and literature, fairy tale and mystery. His stories are often dark and fantastical in the words he puts to paper. The tales he tells touch on things that we, as humans, go through daily, like anxiety, happiness, loneliness, death, and redemption, and fill the depths of his creations like The Sandman, Coraline, and his momentous American Gods, all of which are enjoyed by millions of fans.
I reviewed The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman because it’s one of my favorite books. I’ve read it multiple times and appreciate it more every time my finger touches the pages. To put my thoughts into words, this novel is a daunting challenge, so let’s try at least. Mr. Gaiman starts The Graveyard Book with the murder of a family, creating tension and building up a story loosely based on The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling from the very first line.
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”
One of the best openings I know of in literature, and the prose continues to offer more darkness and sincerity in what I can only describe as hopefully modern gothic. Mr. Gaiman’s prose seems almost written through the eyes of a child and illustrated with the detail of a mother knitting a blanket or tapestry with shadow and light. Over time, his prose uses the English language most writers strive for throughout their careers, yet Mr. Gaiman easily pulls off on each page. I am gushing and in awe of his work, but having read the book over ten times now, including just recently, there is some proof as I continue to come back more like a glutton at a buffet of prose.
The Graveyard Book’s protagonist, Bod, a boy growing up in a graveyard, is expertly voiced by Mr. Gaiman, providing the innocence and keenness of a child raised by a vampire, werewolf, ghosts, and ghouls.
“Things blossom in their time. They bud and bloom, blossom, and fade. Everything in its time.”
Throughout the text, the reader learns and grows with the main character, Bod, as he comes of age, lives in a graveyard, and measures both life and death in a manner others would never consider. Bod can see, speak, and, at times, touch ghosts. He adjusts to the ideas of the past and the presence of monsters as regular occurrences. Yet, his growth comes not from his life inside the graveyard but from when the ordinary world and the dangers and terrors breach the safety of the mausoleums, gravestones, and statues that protect him.
The setting is simplistic and unageing as a graveyard remains static except for the newly arrived dead. The descriptions of shadow, the bushes, grass, grays, whites, and blacks mingled with the reader’s internal versions of a graveyard. Mr. Gaiman measures and provides enough details to lead the reader deeper down the path of the deceased. Bod learns from each of the ghosts’ past lives and is granted some of their protections as he grows with his caretakers while unseen forces a group of men known as Jack to attempt to finish a murder they started on Bod’s family years ago.
“Really, he thought, if you couldn’t trust a poet to offer sensible advice, who could you trust?”
The Graveyard Book is filled with lessons touching on suicide, bullying, romance, and ignorance, all done in a unique and personal manner not seen often in popular culture. Mr. Gaiman’s best writing comes in Chapter 5, Danse Macabre, where the ghosts and the living share a special moment for one night. I recommend listening to Camille Saint-Saens – Danse Macabre while reading the chapter to create the perfect atmosphere for this chapter, but even if you have never heard the song, the prose is exceptional, and the moment at the end of the chapter is both beautiful and haunting.
The novel’s pace moves like a fairy tale with modern sensibilities, like a cat stalking around a house. First-time readers will enjoy Bod’s growth and move quicker as the antagonists, the Jacks, get involved.
I read an older black-covered version of The Graveyard Book, with illustrations by Dave McKean. The artwork looks like a brush on ink and pen were used, adding further to the book. The lines are dark and rounded and flow like wind. The artwork almost feels as if it was just put down with an old ink pen.
As I’ve mentioned, it’s hard to place this book. It’s not YA, and it’s not adult literature. It fits somewhere else in the in-between, and that is what makes it unique. So, this book is for both sides of that fence: those who get a little creeped out when driving by a graveyard and those who enjoy walking through them as the leaves fall. If someone were to ask me what one book I would recommend, this is the first book that comes to mind. A book about a boy who learns about life from the dead.