Review of: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins (2008), Hardcover, 320 pages
This Newbery Award-winning book for young adults begins with a knife in the dark, a family murdered, and a toddler escaping to a nearby cemetery. Found by ghosts and raised by them, Nobody Owens (the name given to the toddler; he’s called “Bod”) cannot return to the outside world because his family’s murderer still waits for him. Instead he is raised by loving ghost-parents, a community of ghost friends and neighbors, and a guardian, Silas, who is the guardian of the graveyard but not part of it, neither living nor dead. Interestingly enough, I never realized – nor does Bod himself – that Silas is a vampire. Gaiman has mentioned Silas’s nature in recent interviews so the information is not meant to be a “big reveal” nor constitutes a spoiler now; I simply never caught on, and I think this is a testament to the writing. Like Bod, I accepted the world that was presented to me, a world where the dead walk the earth and it’s perfectly natural to live in a graveyard, and a world where a not living, not dead guardian who is never seen by day is perfectly normal.
Gaiman says that he “cheated”, in a way, by putting Silas in the story, to explain how a boy could survive there (Silas brings Bod food, and later clothes). But I don’t think it was a cheat: instead, Gaiman smartly addressed the very powerful “need to know” that children have, and made his story more believable. Whereas we adults have learned to accept the conventions of fiction and overlook the details, I know that I myself have rarely met a child who did not want to know how something worked, what made something go, who put something somewhere. This attention to detail is necessary to satisfy the curious child.
The Graveyard Book has a timeless quality to it. Because time has no real meaning in a graveyard – one day is much like another, and no one ages past the years they’d earned before death – and because there are no new graves in this graveyard, and therefore no newer, more modern ghosts, it is only Bod’s growth that marks the passage of years. Even the time period itself feels nebulous at first. Outside the graveyard, it might have been 1895 or 1940. When the outside world finally does encroach on Bod’s life again, it’s a startling juxtaposition, remembering that the book is set in more or less present day, complete with cars and computers and cell phones.
Overall, though, the real genius of this book is another juxtaposition: the turning around of what we know to be true — that ghosts are terrifying — and telling instead a story where it is the living that are feared. Much as Wicked turns The Wizard of Oz on its head, showing us an entirely different point of view that completely changes our sympathies and reactions, The Graveyard Book puts a new spin on the traditional ghost story and, to some extent, on death itself, giving us a new perspective on what we fear.