Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I've had to sit on this review for a bit, because I find it hard to write an insightful review when I have nothing but praise for a book. I'm not jumping-up-and-down in love with The Graveyard Book like I was with Lost at Sea or any of the Pratchett I've read; but I really, thoroughly enjoyed it, and the only bad thing about it that I can think of was that it ended, when I could have happily spent several more chapters it its world.

I've never read Gaiman before. Can I say that, or is it heresy? I've always approached him as a difficult author, and I'm not sure why. But what with the Newbery I figured that this volume might be approachable, and I figured that I had better read something by him eventually since I often recommend his books to patrons based on the strength of others' love for them. Anyway. I've had a Gaiman mental block, but I leapt over it by reading the entirety of The Graveyard Book in one day.

The story starts out somewhat darker than I was expecting. I mean, I've read books with orphans in them before -- but it's not so often children's books open with a view into the mind of the assassin responsible for making the main character an orphan. It's not gory, but it's pretty clear what has happened, and it's scary. For the kid I was, I think, it would have been terrifying. But our hero toddles his way to safety, which happens to be the graveyard up the hill. He grows up there, surrounded by a cast of charming characters, most of whom just happen to be dead. Christened Nobody Owens, Bod for short, he has a number of fascinating, exciting adventures, and slowly learns about being human and being alive, about friendship and loss and love and fear. It's a great fantasy adventure tale, and it's a great coming-of-age tale.

I think what I loved the most was the world that Gaiman has created here. It's full of little details. It's gothic, as one might expect of a book set in an old graveyard. The world outside of the graveyard doesn't have the same clarity, but there's a scene in a little old pawn shop in Old Town that is remarkably well-described. I love, too, how many of the ghosts in the graveyard were introduced with their dates and their epitaph, particularly those who tend not to be significant in the tale itself, which gives them each just a little more depth than they would have otherwise.

There's humour, too, although I don't think it's ever laugh-out-loud humour. Sometimes it's so gentle it's easy to miss it. But this particular part did make me smile, for a lot of reasons:

"You know everything, then, boy? Six years old and already you know everything."

"I didn't say that."

Miss Lupescu folded her arms. "Tell me about ghouls," she said.

Bod tried to remember what Silas had told him about ghouls over the years. "Keep away from them," he said.

"And that is all you know? Da? Why do you keep away from them? Where do they come from? Where do they go? Why do you not stand near a ghoul-gate? Eh, boy?"

Bod shrugged and shook his head.

"Name the different kinds of people," said Miss Lupescu. "Now."

Bod thought for a moment. "The living," he said. "Er. The dead." He stopped. Then, ". . . Cats?" he offered uncertainly.

My favourite character is Silas, Bod's guardian. I think it's because in my head he was always Alan Rickman. He even had Alan Rickman's voice, and Silas' dialogue is particularly well-suited to Rickman's voice. This made him awesome on its own; however, he's also one of my favourite character types: the mysterious, removed, ageless and infinitely knowledgeable guardian figure. What I liked, too, is that we know fairly early on what Silas is, in our mythology, and yet it is never once named in the book. I thought that was cool. There are lots of little mysteries like that; things we guess at, but are never explained fully. It invites the reader to think for herself.

Bod is a worthy hero to carry this book, and I thought he was fantastic. If I have one small criticism, it's that in his younger years he a touch of that preternatural intelligence of a child hero, and sometimes appears quite a lot older than I feel he should be. That said, he's not exactly an ordinary child any way you look at it, being raised by centuries-old ghosts, so I can forgive a little bit of extraordinary intelligence and maturity.

In conclusion -- I loved the concept, I loved the plot, I loved the characters, I loved the world. The ending made me tear up. I got my copy from the library, but if I have the chance to purchase it for myself, I'll be doing so.


Ana S. said...

Alan Rickman as Silas! That's just perfect. I liked the subtlety about what Silas was too. And the gentle humour. And, oh, everything! *gushes* :P

He and Terry Pratchett actually remind me of each other quite a bit. You need to read Good Omens! part of me still can't get over the fact that my two favourite authors wrote a book together, even though it happened before they were my favourite authors :P

Unknown said...

I am definitely going to pick that one up. I can see them complimenting each other perfectly! And I'll be reading more Gaiman. For starters, Blueberry Girl is at my library and I keep meaning to pick it up... and as soon as Coraline stops flying off the shelves I'll be reading that, too. I didn't have the same "Oh MAN, what have I been missing?!" moment with Neil Gaiman that I had with Terry Pratchett, but I've definitely added him to my list of authors I know I like, and want to read more.

Jill said...

I second the motion for Alan Rickman - he'd be great! I'm so glad you enjoyed this, and that you took the Gaiman plunge even though you had reservations. I have yet to read this one to my girls because of that opening scene - my older one is really sensitive to that kind of stuff. She's still a bit freaked out by seeing the movie version of Coraline. She did not think it was funny when I said I was going to dress up as her "other mother" for Halloween, teehee. :-) I read them Blueberry Girl last week, and they loved it. It's so sweet!

Unknown said...

I really wanted to go see Coraline in theatres, and somehow never managed to get there. It probably would have terrified me, but I'm determined to see it sometime.

Jill said...

It's creepy rather than scary, I think. I imagine what disturbed my daughter was the fact that there was this "other" mother who seemed nice and almost like the real mother, but was really anything but. That's a pretty dark concept. I loved all the teeny tiny stuff they made - the film is an astonishing piece of artwork. If you go on youtube you can see a video of the woman who knitted Coraline's sweater - she does it on actual sewing needles! Very cool. :-)

Unknown said...

I am so looking forward to seeing it! It looks so amazing. We wanted to see it in theatres and signals got crossed and lives got busy...