Friday, May 18, 2012

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008)

The Graveyard Book is a delightful fantasy, a recreation of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. It is a tale about a boy raised in a graveyard by ghosts, rather than a boy raised in a jungle by animals. Gaiman is a prolific writer, having written adult novels, young adult novels, graphic novels, and even movie screenplays. This is the first novel of his that I have read, and I am curious to read more. He writes in a very playful style, with a narrator who isn't afraid to be witty, and on top of that, the story is entertaining, too.

Nobody Owens, or Bod, is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, ghosts who reside in a London graveyard. Silas, a creature that can travel between the world of the living and the dead, appoints himself as Bod's guardian. Only he has the ability to leave the graveyard and fetch the boy some food. On the night Bod is adopted by the Owens family, a man called Jack kills his entire family, but his job won't be over until he also kills Bod. However, Bod is protected by the Freedom of the Graveyard, which allows him to do such things as Fading, Slipping, and Dreamwalking. As long as he is in the graveyard, he can turn invisible from any human. These abilities will be crucial for his survival.

The story is about his life as a child up until his mid-teens. During this time he has many adventures and meets many new people. He befriends a living girl named Scarlett, who isn't sure if he is imaginary or not, but is quite certain the ghosts he claims to be talking to are made up. Bod shows her a dark secret of the graveyard, a tomb down a flight of stairs where a creature called the Seeker resides, waiting for the arrival of its master. This frightens Scarlett and she isn't sure if she can trust him anymore, but before she can decide, her parents decide to move away.

Bod meets other interesting creatures, as well. Miss Lupescu is assigned to be his tutor and guardian when Silas must leave for a short while. She is a boring lady with an interesting secret (take a guess). He has an adventure with ghouls, who want to turn him into one of them. He meets a witch in the graveyard, named Liza, who everyone warns him about but she seems pretty nice. He participates in the Dance of the Macabre, the one time of the year when the living and the dead interact, though nobody remembers it the next morning. And Scarlett makes a return visit, and her mother, now divorced, takes a liking to Mr. Frost, a historian who has been studying the graveyard Bod lives in. Inevitably, of course, Bod will have to deal with the man Jack, who is patiently hunting him, and I will say no more about that.

Gaiman has a very engaging writing style. He inserts wit wherever he can and has the ability to generate a laugh out of even the dullest moment. His dialogue is particularly good. He does a great job of infusing personality into the voices of his characters. Silas is mysterious and terse, leaving Bod desiring to learn more. Bod himself is very clever. When he speaks with other humans, the fact that he is different is readily apparent. He is very intelligent, but his knowledge is limited mostly to what the ghosts in the graveyard know, which is centuries old, and so his manner of speaking is odd to other humans. Gaiman does a great job of connecting his many side stories, as well. We see how Bod learns something new from each conflict he comes across, and this helps the novel feel connected.

The final stretch of the novel is much more suspenseful than the rest, as it involves scenes with the man Jack, but it is also the most disappointing. Inevitably, all questions are answered during this final stretch, and satisfying as the answers are, they are rarely as fascinating as the questions, in any story. Also, the novel makes use of the talking villain syndrome, in which the villain explains everything to the boy, giving the boy extra time to carry out his plan to defeat said villain. I suppose this is standard for the genre, though otherwise Gaiman is careful to avoid cliches.

The novel is billed as a children's book, having been awarded the Newbery Honor Medal, and this seems appropriate. Some of it can be scary, like the man Jack and the Seeker, but the scary parts aren't too scary. The story is really a lot of fun, and one that parents would enjoy as well. It is over 300 pages long, but is a very quick and easy read. When compared to other popular novels of its age group, such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, The Graveyard Book shares the whimsy and fun of the Harry Potter books but lacks the violence of The Hunger Games. By the end of the tale, you can at least feel good knowing that Bod has learned a lot and grown into a fine young man.

Even if you are not familiar with The Jungle Book, I recommend you read Gaiman's The Graveyard Book.

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