As you can see by my sidebar, Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors; I’ve loved all of his books except one — his children’s book, Coraline, pretty much left me cold. I can’t really explain what I didn’t like about Coraline; it just didn’t grab me the way Gaiman’s books usually do. I was interested to see if The Graveyard Book would be different, and it sure was.
The Graveyard Book is not so much a novel as it is a collection of related short stories featuring Nobody Owens, a toddler who escapes the murder of his family by wandering into a nearby cemetery, where he is rescued and raised by a group of ghosts. It’s written with Gaiman’s usual flair, mixing humor and pathos and horror in the Gaiman fashion that always makes me feel like a hack. (Thanks, Mr. Gaiman.) In keeping with the book’s YA target demographic, the horror is somewhat muted, but it’s still present and intense enough that my wife wouldn’t feel comfortable using the book in her 4th and 5th grade class. (She sometimes gives “special” books like The Thief of Always to kids who would appreciate it [and whose parents don’t object to the dark subject matter], but has said she won’t do the same with this one.)
Standout chapters in The Graveyard Book are “The Hounds of God”, in which Nobody encounters a group of amusingly-named ghouls; “The Witch’s Headstone”, in which Nobody makes the acquaintance of my favorite character in the book, Liza Hempstock, a ghost who proves to be a valuable friend, and a dangerous enemy; and “Danse Macabre”, which, for reasons that will become obvious to the reader who is also familiar with one of my favorite pastimes, I enjoyed immensely.
In addition to the aforementioned Nobody Owens and Liza Hempstock, the graveyard is populated by a number of colorful characters (dead and otherwise), including Nobody’s mysterious guardian Silas, his stern teacher Miss Lupescu, his ghostly foster parents Mr. and Mrs. Owens, and some creepy disembodied voices that call themselves the Sleer. Outside the graveyard, Nobody has a memorable clash with a pair of bullies at the local school, in a chapter that could perhaps be taken as a satire on the tendency of children to slip through the cracks of the educational system. None of the chapters is particularly weak, even ones that are relatively expository, such as an oddly banal convention of oddly menacing men. The one thing I could quibble with is with Silas and Miss Lupescu’s extra-curricular activities toward the end of the book, in which they team up with a rather throwaway pig-carrying mummy character and an off-screen ifrit in a skunkworks group conducting an operation on Nobody’s behalf. I would’ve liked to see this part expanded or cut; because I rather liked that throwaway pig-carrying mummy, I’m going to go with “expanded it please, Mr. Gaiman”.
They haven’t filmed this book yet, but I think that once they do, it would probably put my wife to sleep in about an hour (unless the “Danse Macabre” chapter happened to hit at the one-hour mark, because I know she would stay awake for that).