The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Review by Marcus Gipps
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780747596837
Date: 31 October 2008 List Price £14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Uncorrected Proof Copy : Gaiman's readers will delight at the prospect of his new novel The Graveyard Book finally being released this coming Halloween. There has been a buzz about it for what seems like months, fuelled no doubt by Gaiman being such a generously visible and contactable personality (his blog is essential reading) and the announcement of the varied and many editions. In the UK alone, The Graveyard Book will be released in three separate states by Bloomsbury - a children's edition, an adult edition and a slip cased gift edition (four, if you count the audio book!) and there will be a similarly varied number of US releases.
Marcus Gipps reviews this title for us in this issue.
I've been looking forward to this one for a while, to be honest, as Gaiman's last prose offering was a short story collection - fine, but not what I want. I want a novel, and this pretty much fits the bill. Actually, it's a collection of short stories that all fit together into a bigger whole, much like David Mitchell's Black Swan Green or, more pertinently, The Jungle Book. Each chapter tells an incident in the life of the young Bod, short for 'Nobody', from the brutal murder of his family and his subsequent adoption by the local ghosts, through to his final revenge and freedom. Along the way he goes to school, meets a girl, goes to a dance, ends up captured by ghouls and so on.
As you can probably guess, there's a lot more to each chapter than that - this is Neil Gaiman, after all - but in essence this is a chronicle of a childhood, and of growing up (maybe not the ghouls bit). The fact that Bod is raised by ghosts and surrounded by magic and murder is almost unimportant to the core of the story, in the same way that Anansi Boys wasn't about being the son of a God, and Stardust isn't about finding a fallen star. Creating fantastic frameworks and plots to hang his writing on is one of Gaiman's real strengths, because he generally manages to make the impossible so convincing and natural that it doesn't detract from the personal. I realise a lot of people like him for the fantasy and imagery, and there's no denying that it is well done, but for me it just provides a framework for the characters he wants to show off. I think that's why Anansi Boys worked so well for me, and why with this book I wasn't left with the witches and other worlds and so on, but the moments between Bod and his Guardian, or the asides from the (wonderfully depicted) many generations of ghosts.
I can understand why a lot of people don't go for that sort of thing, though: the frameworks and trappings of fantasy and horror do put people off and no matter how good the book is, they simply won't be able to enjoy it, or at least convince themselves of that fact. Equally, some people don't like Gaiman's writing, or his style, or his use of mythology and folklore, or whatever. And, to be fair, if you fall into one of those camps (especially the latter), you're probably not going to like this book (you probably wouldn't pick it up in the first place, to be honest, but you know what I mean). There isn't anything here that isn't pure Gaiman, and while that's no problem for me, or many other people, it won't be enough for some. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that this isn't a good book - I think it is constantly well written, often surprising, and more touching than I expected - but I don't feel it represents a great leap for Gaiman. There's no reason why he should make one, mind you, although I'd love to see him write a novel with no fantastic elements at all, but that's just me, and I also love to see him write things like this. So I'm probably being unfair - you can't have it both ways, can you?
And none of that is the point. Putting the fact that Bloomsbury are going to publish this in both adult and child editions aside, and despite the fact that a large proportion of the readership will be grown-up, this is, at heart a book for children. Not young children, maybe - the opening murder scene is distressingly dark, and there are many points in the book which might go over the head of younger readers - but still, this isn't really aimed at adults. If I was coming to this at the age of twelve, or if Coraline had been my first exposure to Gaiman and I'd loved it, there really wouldn't be any criticism I could make. Spooky graveyards, evil societies of killers, bullies, tombs, werewolves, school anxieties, the process of growing up - what more could you want? It also helps that Bod is a great character to read about, albeit one who does sometime react like a classic hero of children's literature - will he learn from his stubbornness? Should he trust the mysterious teacher? Yes... and getting to watch him grow from a baby into a fifteen year old boy is a fun process.
You don't often to get to see the various stages of our hero's development portrayed in a single book, and the result feels surprisingly novel. The various chapters all have a strong enough sense of identity for them to work as stand-alone tales, but they do add up to more than a series of stories. The Jungle Book reference in the title is explicit, and this does work as a modern version of the Mowgli elements of that book - abandoned child, raised by people who aren't his own kind and aren't really people, gets into some scrapes that teach him about the world (and life), and slowly has to decide where his home is. This isn't as morally instructive as that book, I suspect, but that's probably a good thing. Will it still be read in a hundred years time (or turned into a shonky Disney film)? Who knows, but while it may not be Gaiman's best, there's no doubt that it works exceedingly well, and is a very strong piece of writing. He never really seems to do sequels to his books, despite leaving the door open in most of them, and although I suspect we won't see any more of Bod, what we do have is really rather pleasing.