by Neil Gaiman
307 pages, Bloomsbury
Review by Paul Fenton
The Graveyard Book is one of those rare things: a spooky and fantastical story told briefly. It’s a book which caused me to check thoroughly before taking it to the tills that it hadn’t been intended for a young adult audience. My previous experiences of Neil Gaiman’s books were with Neverwhere and American Gods (review by Pat Black here!) both of which are considerably long fantasy-type books, Stephen King long, whereas The Graveyard Book is small enough for me to have tucked it into my waistband and covered it with my shirt and slipped out of the store without attracting the attention of security or staff.
I read the review quotes on the back cover to be sure this slim volume was indeed intended for adults. I’m always intrigued by books which bear tributes from possibly inappropriate publications, and this book had one by the Financial Times: ‘A novel that is a captivating piece of work, light as fresh grave dirt, haunting as the inscription on a tombstone.’ I can’t envisage a haunting tombstone inscription, unless it said ‘I will rise again and take you in your sleep’, but I can see what the reviewer was shooting for, and if I can overlook the intended eloquence and my own literal interpretation, I’d agree with that.
The hero of the story is young Bod Owens, Bod being short for Nobody, a teenager who was orphaned when he was a tiny toddler. Bod’s family were murdered in their beds by the man Jack, a dark assassin whose motivations are unknown, but the last target on his list is young Bod. Before the job could be completed, Bod managed to slip out the open front door, apparently entranced by the sudden freedom offered by the night-time streets, and wandered up the hill and into the town’s graveyard. There were ghosts in the graveyard, and seeing the danger approaching the small boy up the hill, danger with a very long and sharp knife, they took him in and gave him shelter. When it became apparent that Bod was now alone in the world, they agreed to raise him, to keep him safe, and to teach him the ways of the graveyard so that when the man Jack returned he might have a chance of defending himself.
This story could have easily spun out of control. Gaiman has created a world, and it could have ended up a bloated universe with all the breadth of colour and potential it contains; what we are given though is more like a world rendered as a small island, with any unnecessary description or explanation or back-story kept away from its tidy shores. The Graveyard Book was a great pleasure to read, and following Bod’s growth from tyke to teen to young man as he learned the secrets of the graveyard and all the tricks and techniques of the ghosts and ghouls it housed, was effortless yet complete. It was as light as a … as a fresh croissant? No. It was as haunting as … as a horde of ravenous zombies? No, that’s not right.
I know: it was as light as fresh grave dirt, haunting as the inscription on a tombstone. There, nailed it.