The Graveyard Book
By: Neil Gaiman
After writing my last book review of a book also read by the author (by Richard Dawkins, to great ill effect), I feel that in this book I have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime.
If Neil Gaiman weren't such a gifted writer, he could easily have found a career reading books on tape - he's simply wonderful as a narrator.
Of course, I would have loved this book no matter how I heard it. Maybe I could even have enjoyed it had Richard Dawkins read it... no, I don't want to think about that.
The Graveyard Book is a novel that is dying for a sequel. We are introduced to characters we want to keep knowing and watching; we are drawn into a world-between-the-worlds that is more real than most of the flesh-and-blood worlds we actually inhabit day to day.
I wrote a review of another Gaiman book a while back, and in it, cited a passage in which he describes a man who has come halfway back from an invisible world beneath the streets of London. In his halfway state, he wanders around the subway, talking to people nobody but he can see, dressed in rags and tatters (but which, in the "other" London, are appropriate for his station in life). What an evocative passage. Haven't we all seen them? The crazy people who live on the streets, who engage in animated conversations with people nobody but them can see? Who are filthy and ragged but seem perfectly happy? Gaiman lifts us up, twists us around, and gives us an entirely new view of them and their lives. The possibilities.
In this book, Gaiman introduces us to a toddler who escapes from his home as his mother, father and sister are being slaughtered by one of Gaiman's trademark villains. Gaiman does a wonderful job of creating sinister, clever, nasty bad guys who, in the nature of baddies, are truly bad - not the watered down, I-had-a-bad-childhood bad guys of modern fiction. These guys are evil, through and through, and we can hate them and hide from them with impunity.
The toddler makes his way to a graveyard on a hill, where he is adopted by the ghosts who live there. To make him feel at home, they give him the "freedom of the graveyard," which means he can see and do things that most living humans can't while in the graveyard. And the ghosts there understand that this child must not only be loved and cared for, but he must be protected from some evil that is stalking him.
While two of the ghosts become his putative "parents," it is left to a third party to be his "guardian." This man, Silas, has human form - that is to say, a corporeal body - but lives the hours of the graveyard, rising at sunset, and sleeping at dawn. He comes and goes as he pleases, and he is able to supply young Nobody Owens (for that is what our toddler is named by his ghost parents) with food and other necessities. It is also Silas who teaches Bod much of what he learns of the world.
That we never once hear that Silas is a vampire is testimony to Gaiman's great strength as a writer: he conveys all he needs to convey with his descriptions, the dialog his characters speak, the little hints and nuances that are simply seamless parts of the story. We begin to wonder about Silas midway through the book; by the time we reach the end we know what he is, but nothing has ever been stated outright.
In Bod, Gaiman has created a character of such purity that we want to be his mother, sister, best friend, or girlfriend (since I'm a female!). He is guileless: he simply can't lie. Over and over, he cuts to the heart of an issue by simply telling the truth. What's so wonderful about the way that Gaiman has written this character is that this characteristic is never so stated. It simply is. When asked a question, Bod answers with the truth. Even when he is "practicing to deceive" with the bad guys at the end, Bod is, as usual, being honest.
We do learn that there is something much bigger going on than the sweet little coming-of-age story that occupies the main narrative of the book - a primal battle of some kind, between good and bad, dark and light. But neither side is named, nor is the battle ever joined in the tradition of, say, Narnia, where the forces of Good and Evil are named, numbered, and the war is fully engaged.
This book is far too subtle for that. In fact, subtle is perhaps the best word I could use for Gaiman's writing. It is smooth, clever, thoroughly captivating, and he never bludgeons you with his ideas. They simply trickle out, like a little spring: steady, clear, bracing, and honest. And like a spring, they are mesmerizing to watch, and, looking through the moving water, you see an altered version of the things that lie beneath.
I won't give away any more of the story, other than to say the ending begs for another installment. I don't know if this is what Gaiman has in mind, but if there is a petition somewhere, I'm definitely going to sign it.