The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

Cover image

Illustrator: Dave McKean
Publisher: HarperCollins
Copyright: 2008
ISBN: 0-06-053092-8
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 312

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The Graveyard Book starts with the nighttime murder of the Owens family, and from the start one can tell this is a Gaiman novel. Gaiman starts with a delightful description of the knife, telling the murder off-camera by implication and simultaneously introducing the man Jack with a memorable bit of description. The opening chapter features his trademark smooth balance between blunted horror, fascinating description, and hope from innocent skill and luck. The lone survivor of the family, the toddler, walks out of the house into an enveloping fog, narrowly escaping the murderer and wandering into the local graveyard. There, he's defended and eventually adopted by the ghosts of the graveyard and a persuasive cloaked man named Silas.

This is a children's book, illustrated by Dave McKean, but typically for Gaiman it's readable and thoroughly enjoyable for adults. It is aimed younger than many of his novels, though. I'm not much of a children's book reader, but the core audience felt like 8 to 12. The early going is very episodic and feels a bit unconnected, more like a set of bedtime stories about Nobody Owens and the graveyard he lives in than a novel. Chapter three in particular, an extended digression among ghouls, felt pointless and unconnected and not as imaginative or interesting as I was hoping.

Hang with the book, though, since The Graveyard Book really hits its stride a third of the way through in the fourth chapter. Gaiman takes all the elements he introduced episodically and slowly pulls them together, reintroducing the man Jack and portraying Nobody's increasing determination to revenge the death of his family. It's a solid coming-of-age story with some enjoyable reversals. The power that Nobody comes into is simply the natural skills of ghosts, which of course anyone in the graveyard can do. The larger world that Nobody enters is ours, with school, pawnshops, and police, and it makes a wonderful contrast with the cozy history of an English neighborhood graveyard. When all the pieces come together, the conclusion is exciting, suspenseful, and heartwarming.

In either children's or adult writing, Gaiman has a knack for portraying complex people in all their uncertainties, determination, limitations, and courage. He does a particularly good job with Nobody: he makes some bad decisions, but only one of them is cringeworthy and Nobody knows it and deals with the consequences. Gaiman's worlds are dangerous, but they also reward open-hearted empathy and common sense. I frequently come away from his books with a strange feeling that I've caught a glimpse of how to be a better person. Despite the younger target audience, The Graveyard Book is no exception.

As universal the appeal of Gaiman's writing is, I prefer his adult books to his children's books. The style of his children's books don't allow for the same depth of mythology and philosophical detail of, say, Sandman or American Gods, or even Neverwhere. The better comparison for The Graveyard Book is Coraline, and I think those who liked Coraline will like this book as well. Comparatively, I think it had more plot and more character development (the longer length helps), less weird, and less horror. Both featured the same general sort of determined protagonist who is brave and daring in a quiet and subtle way. I think The Graveyard Book was a bit more successful overall, but also a bit scattered and not as tight.

Gaiman didn't blow me away with this one, and I'm not sure I'd recommend finding it in hardcover. His adult work is better. But Gaiman is an excellent descriptive writer whose characterization is particularly well-suited to a children's book, and any Gaiman is worth reading. Recommended, including for adults, if you're in a Gaiman mood.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-06-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21