In many of his books Neil Gaiman delivers a fantasy version of the type of story that is usually known as a “coming of age” work of literature. His children’s book Coraline is an obvious example, but so in a unique way are his adult works American Gods and its companion Anansi Boys. In each of those novels, the main character is initially naïve and ignorant of their own personal abilities as well as the motives and agendas of many of those they meet or encounter, and their adventures through the story lead to their own awareness of the world and their rightful place in it. The Graveyard Book was marketed as a young adult novel, and went on to win the Newbery Medal for that category, but it also won the Hugo Award, and I think it’s safe to say that it isn’t “just” a young adult novel. While reading it I was reminded a good bit of Ray Bradbury’s The October Country (at least some of the stories in that collection) and also his From the Dust Returned, as both books are peopled with quite memorable supernatural characters. Gaiman has done the same thing with this novel.
The story is about a young child who, through a horrific event at the very beginning of the book, is “adopted” by a nearby graveyard and the dead souls who inhabit it. Young Nobody Owens (the name given him by his ghost guardians) or “Bod” as he becomes known to the various denizens of the graveyard, is thus thrust into a different world, much as Tarzan or Mowgli were. Gaiman has said that Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book was one of his literary influences in this novel, and for anyone who has read both, there are indeed similarities.
In the very beginning a man known only as “Jack” kills all of Bod’s family except for the toddler, who has developed a habit of climbing out of his crib and then wandering off, to the chagrin of his parents. However, on this night the habit saves his life. He wanders up the hill from his home to the local graveyard, this eluding the murderer. In the graveyard, the spirit of his mother briefly appears to a ghost couple named Owen and begs them to look after her child. After some debate among the spirits inhabiting the graveyard, along with the intervention of a mysterious man named Silas and an even more mysterious woman riding a grey horse, the graveyard denizens “adopt” Bod and misdirect the dangerous Jack, who is still looking for the child. I won’t reveal more of the book, other than to say that the different spirits who inhabit the graveyard are as memorable a cast of characters as any I’ve encountered in my literary wanderings.
One of the beautiful things about Gaiman’s storytelling is that he usually realizes that less is more, while at the same time knowing when the time is ripe to disclose a little bit more of the of the big picture. His graveyard where Bod lives and learns is as fantastic and as beautiful a place as Kipling’s jungle where Mowgli dwelt, and just as deadly. Gaiman succeeds in drawing us into this world, and at the end of the book I found myself wishing for more of it. I recommend this book to anyone who loves fantastic literature, as I truly think it’s among Gaiman’s best work.