The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Cover of
The Graveyard Book

Having become something of a Neil Gaiman fan and given my interest in young adult fiction – particularly with a fantasy bent – The Graveyard Book seemed like a natural fit.  Here is the teaser:

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy.

He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead.

There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy-an ancient Indigo Man beneath the hill, a gateway to a desert leading to an abandoned city of ghouls, the strange and terrible menace of the Sleer.

But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family. . . .

Typical Gaiman: creative plot concept with a touch of the macabre.  I really enjoyed Coraline and so wanted to see what the author had up his sleeve this time.

And Gaiman didn’t disappoint.  After the intial dark plot sets the scene, The Graveyard Book is really a rather sweet natured coming of age story about friendship, trust, and the hard choices of becoming an adult.

There are really two aspects to the story that interact awkwardly at times but mostly work.  The first part of the story is rather simple.  Bod is an orphan being raised by substitute guardians in a strange place.  The story follows him as he learns to adapt and comes to understand his place in his adopted home.  That this place is a graveyard with dead people playing a prominent role doesn’t change the story structure much.

And even though this is well trod territory Gaiman handles it well.  Bod and his fellow denizens of the graveyard make for interesting characters and relationships.  This unique world is set up in such a way that you want to see how Bod makes his way.  The plot is not too heavy but the tension is there in the background and the suspense starts to build. Gaiman’s immagination and light touch keeps you reading.

And Bod’s interactions with those on the outside – his friendship with a young girl Scarlett who comes to the graveyard with her parents, briefly with students at school, etc. – further the story and provide some comic relief.  The story nicely balances the danger and the excitement of exploration; the enjoyment and the cruelty of childhood.

The second element, which ads to the mystery and suspense, is an additional supernatural aspect of the story.  It involves the backstory to why Bod and his family were attacked and why the killer Jack is still after him.  It also involves the mysterious nature of Bod’s chief guardian Silas and one of his tutors.

This later part of the plot seems a little thin at times; not quite fully explored or explained.  But it works to add some structure to the story and explain the plot to get Bod. I am not one to expect all the threads in a story to be wrapped up or for every little detail to be explained (a certain amount of mystery is neccesary after all), but the story behind Jack just doesn’t feel as flushed out as the rest of the story.

As a number of reviewers have noted, however, this gives the story the feel of the first book in a series.  Some aspects of the plot seem only to be introduced and the story ends in such a way as to leave the reader wanting to follow Bod on his further adventures.  I don’t know if Gaiman has plans for another book, but you can be sure it would be received with gratittude by his fans.

The Graveyard Book isn’t one of those can’t put down type books, and I found Coraline to be a tighter more focused story, but it is an enjoyable and immaginative one.  While Bod’s home is unique the underlining themes are universal: family, friendship, trust, growing up, etc.  And as usual, Gaiman handles them with creativity,wit, and just the right amount of spookiness (I am not sure I have read another author who can be creepy and frieghtening with less actual violence).

Recommended for readers young and old.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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