Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book is Gaiman's second official novel for Young Adults, after Coraline. Well, it is if you don't count Odd and the Frost Giants -- which I don't because I haven't seen it, so I'm not sure if it qualifies. But that's the thing about Gaiman: every new project is something unexpectedly new, somehow. If I were to make a list of the prose writers I'd be least surprised to see put out a sonnet sequence, or an opera, or suddenly turn to composing music for the Andean grass-harp, Gaiman would be at the top of the list, simply because he does always seem to be starting something new and different.

And, in typically untypical Gaiman fashion, he started writing The Graveyard Book in the middle -- with the fourth chapter, "The Witch's Headstone," originally published as a novella in the anthology Wizards, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois -- and then worked out to both ends.

In a city that could be anywhere, but feels English (even in the American version of the novel), a murderer -- "the man Jack" -- slaughters nearly an entire family as part of a mysterious mission. But the toddler son of the family wanders out of the house in the middle of the deaths, and makes his way to a local graveyard. And, there, the ghosts -- and one other inhabitant, neither dead nor living -- argue over what to do, but eventually decide to take him in.

The boy is given the name Nobody Owens, and called "Bod" for short. A 19th century ghost couple take on his day-to-day care, and that undead gentleman, named Silas, becomes his guardian and his one source of contact with the modern, living world.

That all happens in the first chapter, "How Nobody Came to the Graveyard." Later chapters -- there are eight in all, plus an "interlude" concerning doings elsewhere -- each see Bod a year or two older. The Graveyard Book is inescapably episodic; each episode is its own story, with Bod at a different point in his journey to becoming a man -- much like Kipling's The Jungle Book, which Gaiman admits was a great inspiration.

Bod starts young and innocent, with the freedom of the graveyard and not much else, but gains (and then loses) a friend, and learns much along the way. Gaiman, as usual, doesn't sugar-coat his worlds when he's writing for children; this may be a graveyard with friendly, helpful ghosts, but it's still a world with much nastiness in it. Gaiman's cosmology is influenced by Lovecraft here, as it has been before, so there are real horrors in this world, who would kill Bod -- or do much worse to him -- if he's not smart and tricky and thoughtful and brave.

Luckily for Bod, he is all of those things.

The Graveyard Book -- at least the US edition that I read; I understand that it varies quite a bit from the US to the UK -- also contains extensive illustrations by Gaiman's frequent collaborator Dave McKean. McKean provides the equivalent of three-to-five pages of art -- all grey wash and black ink -- for each chapter, bunched at the beginnings and ends. It's very atmospheric, and quite appropriate for the book.

Gaiman's novels have gotten very assured lately, through Coraline and Anansi Boys to Graveyard Book. I know there are those who think American Gods is his great, defining book, but he's actually been doing much better work since then, in smaller, tighter, more careful and precise novels. Graveyard Book continues that string of excellent work, and I hope Gaiman doesn't entirely abandon long-form prose for more exotic forms of storytelling -- he's a damn good novelist, these days, and I'd like to see him write one a year for a good long time. (That's not too greedy, is it?)

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