Listen, Jena. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is a ghostlier, deadlier, more joyful channeling of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. An infant’s parents are murdered, and the baby narrowly escapes the killer. Not into a jungle, though: into an old English graveyard. The Bagheera equivalent here is Silas, neither living nor dead (probably a vampire). Rather than wolves, two ghosts adopt the boy. The murderer is not a tiger, but a monstrous man with ancient and secret reasons for hunting the boy.
Each chapter is a short story separated by two years as the boy grows up in the graveyard. Gaiman is a steady storyteller. Each story stands on its own, follows it own rhythm, wraps it own plot, but also contributes to the larger story. Nobody Owens meets ghouls, a dead witch, the ghost of a poet who punished a mean critic by never publishing another word, and one spirit older than Christendom.
It’s great reading, an exercise in restraint and shadow, telling one story by skipping along the surface of an ocean of myth and fantasy. The reader feels the same curiosity and wonder that Nobody Owens feels, and would always like to know more about a character than we’re told.
It is in that way that the book imitates childhood very well.
It also has incredible illustrations by Chris Riddell.
Reading it, I couldn’t help but notice how well the episodic chapters, death-related creatures and intelligent, resourceful protagonist would work into a video game. No, it wouldn’t ruin the book, Jena.
This is one for a kid or adult who wants a bit more of graveyards and ghosts than October 31 generally provides. It’s an intelligent redoing of Kipling’s formula, and works on a foundation of deep optimism. The saddest character, in fact, is doubtless Silas, who can fully experience neither life nor death. Both are ahead of us and of Nobody Owens.