Until this past weekend, I had never read a book by Neil Gaiman, but I’d heard quite a bit about him, so when I had the chance to read The Graveyard Book, I readily took it. The book is written for children, but the concept of the novel is intriguing—a boy being raised by a graveyard and all its resident ghosts—and the cover was beautiful (always a plus), so I sat down with positive expectations. (Please be advised that this review contains spoilers.)
For the most part, I really enjoyed the book. The prose had lovely passages, the characters were varied and interesting (I particularly liked Silas, the boy’s guardian), and the take on werewolves, ghosts, vampires, ghouls, and the afterlife felt original. It never felt forced or flashy, and the idea of the various ghosts teaching the boy, Nobody or “Bod,” how to scare and use fear and fade and do other ghostly tricks was fun. Bod was likeable, and his view on life and ghosts and death was consistent with growing up in a graveyard.
Sadly, though, I found the whole experience to be ethereally fleeting. The narration, while beautiful, was as unsubstantial as a ghost. The metaphors didn’t stay with me for very long, and I never felt like we got close enough to the characters to truly know them. The narration was third-person omniscient, so there was distance between the reader and the characters, but this distance felt more expansive than necessary. There were many times when I wanted to know the actual, direct thoughts of the characters, and I only was permitted a glimpse, a hint of what was being contemplated.
The plot also contributed to this. The story is heavily influenced by Kipling’s Jungle Book, but there are significant differences. In the Jungle Book, the threat to Mogli comes from the jungle itself, and despite the many times he leaves the jungle, he always comes back (he even takes his mate into the jungle, and he indicates that they will go back there after he returns her to her father). The jungle is his home and its inhabitants his family, and this never changes.
In Bod’s story, the threat to his life is primarily outside the graveyard. There is one brief tale of his being in danger while in the graveyard—an episode that reminded me a bit of the monkeys carrying off Mogli—but there was no tiger, no danger to be faced and conquered within its borders, and it sometimes felt like Bod was just putting in his time in the graveyard, waiting for his real life to begin outside. This attitude added to the ephemeral feel of the book; he makes friends, but in the end, he must leave the “jungle” and lose all the friends he made.
He won’t be able to see them again, or touch them, and he may or may not remember them. Silas, his guardian, has a bad habit of making people forget things; he made Bod’s friend from childhood, Scarlett, forget most of her adventures with Bod. They may get back together again, but Bod’s past, with the graveyard folks, will never come again and never be revisited. Because his graveyard is a nature preserve and has been one for some time, it is unlikely that he will join them, even in death. Thus, in reaffirming the importance of life and living, the story became more dreamlike.
But this may have been intentional. There was a great deal of the fairy tale in the story, and most fairy tales are not necessarily life-like. They could’ve happened, but their happening or not isn’t the point. They contain a message in a brief, beautiful vision, and we take away this message and the mood of the story like the memory of a flower. It is not a painting to be studied, but an opening of imaginative windows.
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren